A Wildlife Oasis in the Middle of Mumbai Is Under Siege

Developers have their eye on the Aarey Milk Colony, the ‘green lungs’ of the city of 20 million people.

Aarey Milk Colony. (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

When a builder hungers to develop a patch of open space, he finds an environmental consultant to conclude that there isn’t any wildlife living there. It’s an ecological desert, the consultant dutifully reports. A wasteland. Really, the developer is doing a public service by even offering to put a building there.

I have seen this Big Lie prevail at home, where critical wetland habitat in the Jersey Meadowlands has given way to a hideous mega-mall described, by Gov. Chris Christie, no less, as “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America.” And I saw The Lie at work again early this month on a visit to Mumbai, India’s largest city and the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the world.

One of the odder things about Mumbai is that it contains a 40-square-mile national park, in the middle of a metropolis of 20.5 million people. Also oddly, the park has a very agricultural 4,000-acre appendage on its southern end called Aarey Milk Colony. The name means what it suggests: In the 1940s, the city moved dairy farmers 20 miles north to what was then forested countryside with the aim of providing a reliable milk supply for the city. About 16,000 buffalo now live in open sheds there, and the rest of the colony is a mix of woodlands and fields growing fodder for the cattle. Locals sometimes refer to Aarey as “the green lungs of Mumbai.”

But pressure to develop open land has become unbelievably fierce in the surrounding area, where population density can top 71,000 people per square mile. Developers nibble away at open space, regardless of whether they actually own it. Early this year, for instance, local journalist Ranjeet Jadhav reported that the so-called “land mafia”—developers and their collaborators in government—were selling off shanty-size chunks of Aarey Milk Colony for $150 to $300 each to establish a new slum.

The common pattern with these informal developments is that some vote-hungry politician eventually arranges water and electricity for the residents. Then, having established that the land is no longer open space, the developer comes back and replaces the whole mess with high-rise (and high-priced) apartment buildings. This time, though, Jadhav’s article embarrassed local leadership enough that they demolished the new development earlier this month. And with luck, it will stay demolished for another month or two.

But the threat to open space can also come from the government itself, in the name of civic welfare. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation and the regional development authority have been pushing to turn 69 acres of the Aarey Milk Colony into a mass transit car shed for a new subway line. If the plan goes through, it will mean cutting down or relocating about 2,300 trees and turning open space permanently into developed land. The deal hinges on a $1 billion loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which has strict environmental rules for the projects it finances. So Mumbai officials did the usual thing, hiring environmental consultants to give the Japanese bankers an Environmental Impact Assessment concluding that the area contains no wildlife.

Somewhat awkwardly, Aarey Milk Colony is in fact crawling with wildlife, as two researchers demonstrated not long ago in a richly detailed report to the state government on biodiversity there. They found that the area is home to 86 butterfly species, 13 amphibians, 46 reptiles, 76 birds (from white-throated kingfishers to greater racket-tailed drongos), and 16 mammals (including jackals and rhesus macaques). Asked how its environmental consultants managed to overlook this menagerie, Ashwini Bhide, chairwoman of the metropolitan development authority, tried not to look foolish while replying that the “no wildlife” line referred only to the fields and forests proposed for development, not to the surrounding fields and forests. Because nature is so convenient that way.

Will the Japanese bankers fall for this line? Maybe yes, maybe no. (Contact them here to offer your suggestions.) But there is an almost infinite supply of other threats to open space in Mumbai, a local activist explained to me one day as we sat in the shade outside his house. The government’s antiterrorism force now has a training facility in Aarey Milk Colony, and so does the state police force. There’s a proposal to build a highway overpass there. Also a zoo, presumably for people who are not patient enough to see the wildlife all around them in their native habitat. And there are 27 informal developments housing 45,000 people (and climbing).

High-rise apartment buildings will almost certainly follow, with each new wave of encroachment touting its precious view of the natural world until, before long, there is no natural world—no birds, no butterflies, no amphibians—left to see.

And the lungs of the city? “Soon,” the activist complained, “you will need to give people oxygen masks to breathe.”