According the Mumbai fire department, more than 60% of the fires in the city were from the Aarey region. In the first three months of this year, out of the 47 distress calls they received 31 were from Aarey.
After fighting in the Supreme Court to prevent tree felling, activists are now fighting to save trees from suspicious fires. Though there is a lull in the fires for now due to the monsoons, Sanjiv Valsan of Rewilding Aarey feels that since the vested interests continue to be at play in Aarey, it could continue to be at the receiving end of the fires due to the high stakes involved. “Encroachers will continue to attempt land grabs ; the key issue here is how will the authorities counter this to save our forests?” asks Valsan.
Though forest fires mostly occur during summers, Valsan finds a pattern in these fires. “Most Aarey fires occur repeatedly at strategic locations either close to private or government projects, or close to expanding slums. If trees are cut, then there is a huge uproar but when trees are burnt then there seems to be no repercussions for the culprits,” he said. Because there are no investigations or arrests, the land becomes free to develop, he added.
In September 2020, Maharasthra government said that they intended to declare part of Aarey as forestland. The actual declaration of 813 acres as forestland came only last month. In the interim, the region witnessed a frenzy of sporadic forest fires and alleged illegal encroachments.
Senior Shiv Sena leader and local member of legislative assembly Ravindra Waikar has demanded a judicial enquiry into the series of fires.
Illegal structures soon come up where there were fires, hence they might be intentional, said Waikar and complained to the chief minister, Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna reported on 27 May.
Burning down trees
After fighting in the Supreme Court to save trees, activists are now trying to save trees from suspicious fires.
Though forest fires happen during summers, activists like Sanjiv Valsan find a pattern in the fires. “Most of the Aarey fires occur repeatedly at strategic locations either close to private or government projects or close to expanding slums,” said Valsan. Because there are no investigations or arrests when there are fires, the land becomes free to develop, he explained.
Apart from fires, miscreants also seem at work in other ways to harm or clear the trees. “Trees are hollowed from the core and then subsequently set on fire,” reveals Stalin Dayanand, director of non-government organisation Vanashakti, which has been at the forefront of the citizens initiative to protect Aarey forest.
Every wing of the government seems apathetic towards fores in Aarey, said Dayanand. “For example, there are times when the fire brigade doesn’t even pick up and respond to the fires. The police don’t bother to investigate the fires, their CCTV’s fail to pick up culprits in fires set up within the range. The Dairy Development Authority does not even bother to complain about the fires,” he said.
He demanded reopening of the Aarey fire station which was closed down about two years back and a drone to inspect damage done in the forest. “The fires are strategic acts at strategic locations and at a critical strategic juncture,” he said. These fires come at a time when a part of Aarey has been declared as forests.
Aarey will continue to be vulnerable to forest fires even after the declaration of a part of Aarey as a forest, said Valsan.
Large-scale overnight cutting of trees by the Maharashtra government for setting up of a Metro car shed remains a dispute in the Supreme Court. “While the Metro has stated that it has already cut the 1000-odd trees needed at the plot, we found that only about 300 trees had been cut and they still needed permission to cut the rest for the project. However, if the trees are cleared by burning, then no such government permission would be needed,” said Dayanand. “Besides, only those places catch fire and not around settlements of alert tribals opposed to development projects,” said Dayanand.
There are fires in the region when the Bharatiya Janata Party (which is pro-concrete development in Aarey) and the Shiv Sena (which supports the forest in Aarey) are not in a coalition anymore.
Regular fires in Aarey, that is in the periphery of a protected forest of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, will definitely hurt the biodiversity in the forests, said Sunil Limaye, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife (west region). “We creating fire lines or barriers to prevent spread of the fires, have fire fighting equipment and even volunteer forest protectors inform us about fires and even help in basic fire fighting within the forest,” he said.
The Aam Aadmi Party drafted a map showing the pattern and location of the 14 fires in Aarey.
Though Aarey comes under the jurisdiction of the National Dairy Development Board, the fire brigade was never summoned by them even when fires occured very close to the bungalow of its Chief Executive Officer Nathu Rathod, according to activists.
Rathod was caught by the Anti-Corruption Bureau accepting bribes for allowing non-mandated premonsoon repair works for huts in Aarey.
“Despite umpteen daily fires within Aarey, it’s always locals and activists who summon the fire brigade,” said Valsan. Most times, precious time is lost when the fire engines end up going around in circles to locate the exact point of fire, he added.
Harish Shetty, divisional fire officer (mobilisation) of the Mumbai fire brigade said that since the dry leaves are fallen on the ground and there is increased human activity on the connecting roads passing through Aarey, the fires are generally caused by careless lit cigarettes thrown here by the passing vehicles.
Students of the Indian Institute of Technology were working on developing an application to detect the exact location of fire by tracking the location of the caller. “Currently, we do not have a GPS kind of mechanism to detect the exact location of the fire and are entirely dependent on the information provided by the caller,” he said.