Mumbai, (The Hindu): The management of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) has sought an additional 24 acres of land inside Aarey Colony for the rehabilitation of tribals. Nearly 15,000 encroachers will be accommodated on a 90-acre land against the 66 acres reserved in the colony. The move will throw up open spaces within the SGNP, which will be afforested, but environmentalists are concerned that the relocation of a large number of people will affect Aarey’s ecology.
The national park and Aarey Colony have had inhabitants for decades, who are dependent on the forest for their livelihood. The SGNP has 43 hamlets (padas) housing 1,795 tribals and 13,000 encroachers.
In the late 1990s, the Bombay Environment Action Group had approached the High Court against encroachments within the park. The court had, in 2003, directed the SGNP management to shift all legal inhabitants out of the park and demolish the encroachments. The order was to be implemented within 18 months.
While 11,000 were rehabilitated in Chandivali, the rest could not be accommodated due to technical problems. The tribals and the encroachers occupy around 300 acres of land inside the SGNP. The management explored other options as well, but they were not viable.
Therefore, the State government handed over 190 acres inside Aarey Colony to the SGNP in 2013 for rehabilitation of tribals, and creation of an international zoo (apart from the Metro car shed). While the land has been in the SGNP’s possession since then, it could not undertake rehab there as the 66 acres marked for it were falling short of the requirement.
The SGNP management wants to give 400 sq ft tenements to tribals and 269 sq ft tenements to encroachers. Thus, it requires at least 90 acres of land.
“The idea is to rehabilitate tribals in row-house-like structures complete with a courtyard, in keeping with their way of life. Therefore, a larger area is required while legal encroachers will have SRA tenements in high-rise buildings in Aarey Colony,” chief conservator of forests and director of SGNP, Anwar Ahmed, said.
The SGNP will be tasked with determining their eligibility and only those with requisite documents will be rehabilitated. Once the process is over, the encroachments will be demolished and the land will be biologically restored.
The 90-acre land inside Aarey will help free up around 300 acres at the SGNP. However, this requires a change in the plot’s reservation. Besides, it would shrink the area reserved for the zoo.
On March 31, the SGNP management wrote to the secretary, Revenue and Forests, Maharashtra, proposing that the 90 acres be marked in the proposed DP as ‘R&R of tribals’.
“For the rehabilitation, 90 acres of the 190 acres allotted in Maroshi village can be used following which the 13,000 illegal encroachments can be demolished as per the HC order and the national park can be free of encroachments,” the letter, signed by Mr. Ahmed, said.
While officials from the DP department told The Hindu that additional land is being allocated inside Aarey for rehabilitation, a GR is yet to be issued.
But neither environmentalists nor villagers are happy. D. Stalin, director of NGO Vanshakti, and one of the members of the Save Aarey Movement, said they are not as opposed to the rehabilitation of tribals as to the Metro car shed. However, bringing in thousands of people will disturb its ecology heavily. “Aarey has been declared an eco-sensitive zone. Even if this land is outside the marked green zone, so much construction will disturb the sanctity. Besides, does Aarey have the necessary infrastructure to support such big numbers?” he asked.
Prakash Bhoir, member of Shramjeevi Sanghatna, which works for tribals, said the land that they want to rehabilitate upon is under farming. “Tribals pay 1 as rent per guntha for tilling the land. What about them? And what about the livelihoods of those coming from the national park? How will they survive? The authorities need to keep things as they are.”
Nilesh Dhuri of Jan Aadhar, a social organisation, also opposed the move. “Minister Ravindra Waikar had held a meeting with tribals, but we are not convinced. What about the villagers inside Aarey? They should also have access to concrete houses. Even today, Aarey has hamlets that have neither electricity nor water. Simply dumping people here is of no use. And the government should be fair to both.”
But petitioner Debi Goenka of BEAG and now executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust welcomed the move. “We believe that the national park should not have any human encroachments. That is why we had moved court. I am happy that at least after 15 years, something is being done.”
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