By Harish Iyer
In wake of the indiscriminate and cowardly felling of trees in Aarey, I decided to go check things out on the ground myself. While I could not enter the Aarey forest on Saturday (October 5) or Sunday (October 6), I managed to gain entry on October 7. This is what I found.
I reached the entrance to the Aarey forest on the Western Express Highway at Goregaon at 5:30 PM. The first thing I noticed was that the police that had set up a check point at the location and were checking people driving private vehicles to ensure that only residents were allowed inside. BEST buses that pass through the area as a part of their regular route were also allowed to ply as usual.
There was some confusion about the lifting of section 144 that prohibits an assembly of more than four people. However, as I was unaccompanied by anyone, I decided to venture inside. My taxi driver advised me to say that I was going to Royal Palms, an upscale residential project located inside Aarey. It worked! I got inside.
At the check-point near the bus stop inside Aarey, I alighted from the vehicle and started walking. The police vans outnumbered the media outdoor broadcasting vans! There were several rickshaws parked here. I asked the rickshaw drivers about the place where the tree-cutting was taking place. They told me to keep walking towards Royal Palms. So far, so good.
I spotted two outdoor broadcasting vehicles of news channels parked near this check-point. I kept walking. But, that’s when television news reporters from these two channels spotted me. Two people from one of the channels started following me. Perhaps they were aware of my activism and social media campaigns on the subject. However, they did not call out to me. I kept checking who was behind me using my cell phone on the pretext of checking my appearance using the front view camera.
That’s when a person in plain clothes walked up to me and asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to Royal Palms. He didn’t stop me. But as I walked further, I had an inkling that I was being followed. I also saw the same bike borne men drive past me more than once that led me to believe that I was under surveillance. Once again I used my phone camera to check what was happening behind me and saw the plain clothes man talking to the two reporters who I felt had also been following me. Perhaps they told this man who I was, because shortly after that the same man walked up to me and demanded that I leave.
When I asked why, he said he knew who I was and why I was there. When I said that as I was alone and that I wasn’t breaking any law, he insisted that I leave. I asked him for his name, but he refused to identify himself or state under what authority he had the right to ask me to leave. I reiterated that even if section 144 was imposed, I was all alone and not breaking any law. But this did not work and the man got even more insistent. When he got a rickshaw and ensured that I got into it, I began to suspect that perhaps he was a plainclothes policeman or someone from some law enforcement authority or security agency. Though I cannot say for sure. Either way, the following questions remain unanswered:
1) Why is there an attempt to hide the site of the tree-cutting from the public? If the Supreme Court has already stayed the cutting of trees, why aren’t the media or activists being allowed to see for themselves that the felling has indeed been stopped?
2) Who are the authorised security personnel deployed in the region and why are some of them not wearing uniforms or identity tags? With whose blessings are these plainclothes men operating?
3) What provisions have been made to protect the wildlife that may have been rendered homeless and confused by the felling of trees, where they are habituated to living? Mumbai Mirror reported how a snake landed up in a BMC school inside Aarey. This situation can escalate as other homeless and scared fauna could end up in residential areas, causing panic that might accentuate the human-animal conflict in the heavily forested region.
It also remains to be seen if the manner in which the trees were felled in the dead of the night will be forgotten by Mumbaikars when they decide the electoral fortunes of the government on October 21.