In the early hours of 6 October, residents of Naushachapada woke up to Prakash Bhoir's message. Even though the night had been excruciatingly long and anxious, they did not expect to wake up to a new reality: over 300 trees had been axed overnight in their home, also known as “Mumbai's last green lung” — the Aarey forest. Bhoir, an Adivasi activist from Kelti Pada and an unofficial chieftain of his tribe, alerted the neighbouring padas (hamlets) of the overnight events. "It felt like our brothers and sisters had been taken away from us," 17-year-old Sheetal Shigvn told Firstpost, recalling that fateful morning.
(Above photo: Ashwini Umbarsadhe runs to her yard and comes back with a dozen fresh, homegrown guavas)
Walking through these padas around Aarey Colony, one sees everyday sights: children playing carrom, women on their way back from work, elderly men huddled together discussing the latest goings-on. However, under the ordinariness of daily life, lies anger and apprehension.
(Seen here: Nikita and Neha watch as Ashwini climbs a tree)
For the residents of these 27 hamlets, living in the area for decades, the Aarey forest is more than just a verdant landscape. Its shade offers respite from the sun, and in the absence of cooking gas in the locals’ kitchens (some of the homes here had electrical connections installed as recently as three months ago), the forest is also where the villagers go to gather firewood.
(In this image: Reshma Umbarsadhe says the Sunday morcha has been a way for her to deal with the loss of the trees)
Quite apart from the sustenance they derive from the forest, the Warli tribe reveres it, for they are devotees of Hirwa Devi, or the ‘Green God’.“Hirwa Dev is believed to reside in the trees. Our god is being taken away from us as we watch," said 15-year-old Ashwini Umbarsadhe. For decades, the Warli people have worshipped the trees that were planted in Aarey by their forefathers. The severing of that relationship has been a personal trauma that some have not been able to fully fathom.
(Prakash Bhoir’s wife was among those arrested for protesting the felling of trees)
However, in seeking recourse for their collective pain, the tribe has also developed a remarkable sense of community and kinship, as reflected in their routine. Even as they stagger under the anxiety of what is to come — given the Supreme Court's decision to restrain the authorities from cutting any more trees till 21 October — the effort to save their ecosystem has been unstinting.
(Above photo: The Warli tribe is also known for its art which adorns most walls in the 27 padas of Aarey Colony)
A WhatsApp message is all it takes to mobilise villagers for the Sunday morchas that are part of their #SaveAarey campaign. "Whenever we get a message regarding a meeting or the Sunday morcha on the WhatsApp group, we wrap up our work quickly and rush home to participate in the event," said Rajni Waghat, who is employed as a domestic help. "The end goal is to save the remaining trees no matter what. We will be there for Aarey, whenever called," she added, echoing the sentiments of a community known for its self-sufficiency — a self-sufficiency they acknowledge the forest has helped them achieve.
(Here: Manisha Umbarsadhe worries her children will not have the same access to the Aarey forest that she did growing up)
On 6 October, when the fate of the trees became common knowledge, activists from the village marched to the site that had been cordoned off by the authorities. Despite the heavy police deployment, villagers came together amid the imposition of Section 144 and 29 arrests. “The fact that the government deployed police personnel to ensure it faced no obstacles in uprooting trees in the Aarey forest is absurd. Why would you show that kind of strength for a task like that?” Prakash Bhoir asked, sitting in his front yard where he also grows produce.
(In this image: Residents of the 27 hamlets gather to remember their clan gods. Photo by Prakash Bhoir)
The arrests left the tribe shaken. Even though they have never known another home, a new fear has gripped them: what if their land is taken away from them like their trees? “Did the Adivasi come first or the government? The government didn't plant the trees, so who gave them the right to cut it? They did not ask us, the original inhabitants, whether we want the Metro. Given its price, we cannot even enter the Metro,” another resident said.
(Tribal residents of Aarey Colony pay tribute to the felled trees. Photo by Prakash Bhoir)
The locals are fearful too of the possibility of a future where their children will be forced to live without the forest that sustained their forebears. “Will the forest even be there when our children turn into adults? Because, without it they will have nothing,” Manisha Raje Umbarsadhe said, her voice trailing off as she contemplated such a scenario.
(Above photo: Residents of the 27 padas of Aarey Colony mourn the loss of their trees. Photo by Prakash Bhoir)
The people of the padas have found strength in solidarity, observed in the way they grieve and celebrate. As soon as the dust settled, the Warli people assembled again on 9 October to pay homage to the felled trees. The sight, no less than a vigil, is another testament to the tribe’s faith in nature and each other. It is nights like these, evening chats, and the Sunday meetings which keeps them going even as the number of felled trees stand at 2,141. However, their doors remain open to all who support the cause. “This isn't an Adivasi, Maratha or Dhangar morcha,” Prakash Bhoir reminds us. “Aarey is a movement that knows no religion, caste or age.”
(Here: Neha walks through the forest to attend a meeting at Prakash Bhoir’s home)
— All photos by Anvisha Manral for Firstpost, unless indicated otherwise
Also read — Aarey's condemned trees: A look at some of the 2,700 green sentinels facing the axe