Fire In Aarey Augurs Trouble For ‘Developed’ Future

Around 6.20 pm on December 3, a fire broke out in a forested area near the Aarey Colony in Goregaon, Mumbai. Till 7.30 pm, the fire remained confined to a zone within 3.5 kms from the spot of the first but, swiftly,  by 8 pm, it was escalated to Level III as the fire department found it difficult to control the blaze owing to winds from the hills and the fire threateningly advanced to residential areas.

After an all-night operation launched by a collective of fire personnel, forest officers and the Mumbai police, the blaze was finally put out only by 8.48 am on December 4. The fire underlined the fragility of the 16 sq km Aarey’s ecosystem. A formidable threat to the 12-odd tribal pockets in the Colony, in particular, and the city’s green lungs in general was deflected by a whisker.

Defined as a ‘major emergency call’,  the last time a fire was escalated to this level was when a fire was triggered by a gas cylinder blast at a Western Mumbai slum located at Bandra on October 30. Traffic along the Western Express Highway came to a crawl as vehicles slowed down against the backdrop of the forest fire. “The commotion was insane and the fears palpable,” says 23-year-old Media student Raina Chaturvedi who took two hours stuck in a traffic jam while travelling from her college in Bandra to Kandivali.

The fire had originated in a plot near an IT Park along the General Arun Kumar Vaidya Marg in the western suburb. The IT Park is located adjacent to the Colony. As the hours passed, the fire started spreading towards the New MHADA colony near New Dindoshi Green Hill Society in Goregaon and the Disaster Management Control Room was directed to inform all police stations surrounding the forest to prepare to evacuate tribal residents.

Incidentally, owing to a severe lack of access, fire vehicles were unable to enter the thickly forested area till two small hose lines were put into operation. The fire brigade authorities also roped in forest staff and more than 100 volunteers to put out the flames using tree branches. Through the night, fire-fighting appliances were diverted from the Film City to put out the flames. In all, 10 fire-fighting engines, seven Jumbo Tankers and three Quick Response Vehicles were put in to service at the location.

While social media was replete with users posting pictures and videos of the fire that was compared to the epic California fire by the media, it may be recalled that the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) had recently  reiterated its claim in Bombay high court that the Aarey Milk Colony was not a forest. The body alleged that activists had been trying to mislead the citizens and the Bombay high court against the Metro-3 line.

The recent ‘forest’ fire that took a whole night to douse, only underlines the claims of activists. “Apart from the loss to forests and property due to the fire, it’s the loss of life to birds and animals pivotal and unique to zone that is indicative of the dismal failure of ‘development’ by way of the Metro Car Shed in the Aarey Milk Colony slotted for the future,” says In Defence of Animals President, Fizzah Shah.

Environmentalist and tree activist Zoru Bhatena says, “Every year, the forest area at Dindoshi is set on fire. This land has been constantly and consciously neglected and the authorities have refused to intervene. It looks like an conspiracy to hand over the forest to developers. If they allow the place to grow into a thick forest, they will be denied permission to cut trees.” The fires around this time of the year are a regular occurrence but it was, for the first time, that a fire at Dindoshi grew so large and almost risked getting out of hand. Ironically, MMRC has yet to obtain permission for tree-felling in the zone and the fire is being perceived as a swift fix to the entire issue, by a section of the activists.

gajanan@draftcraft.in

A version of this story first appeared in Down To Earth.