Exploring the Ladder of Citizens Participation with Parallels drawn from the Aarey forest-Mumbai Metro Conflict, India


Name of conflict:

Aarey Forest threatened by new DP 2034 (Multiple Development Projects), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Type of conflict:
Infrastructure and built environment
Project area:
1200 ha
Affected Population:
Company names or state enterprises :
Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL),Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Maharashtra Government ,Maharashtra State Forest Department .
Relevant government actors:
Sudhir Mungantiwar - State Forest Minister ,Devendra Fadnavis - Chief Minister, Maharashtra ,Ashwini Bhide - MD, MMRCL
International and Finance Institutions:

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) , Japan

Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters):

Vanashakti ,Aarey Conservation Group

Intensity of mobilization:

MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)

Groups mobilizing:

Indigenous groups or traditional communities, Local ejos, Neighbours/citizens/communities, Social movements

Forms of mobilization:
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..),Creation of alternative reports/knowledge,Development of a network/collective action,Development of alternative proposals,Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism, Media based activism/alternative media, Objections to the EIA, Official complaint letters and petitions, Public campaigns, Street protest/marches, Arguments for the rights of mother nature, Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment,


    The 1200 Ha Aarey Milk Colony is a biodiversity hub and a catchment area for the Mithi River that flows through the city of Mumbai. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) proposes to construct a metro car shed right within the forest for which they have demanded the denotification of 165 Ha of forest land.  Despite widespread citizens' outrage and the availability of 7 other alternate locations, the state government of Maharashtra remains absolutely adamant about locating its car shed here. Moreover, there have been strong evidences that zoning of Aarey forest (From Non Development Zone to Commercial) in the new Development Plan of 2034 has been changed to benefit the builder lobbies in the city. The government has further denied in open court that Aarey is a forest despite the fact that government records clearly show the land having been declared as a forest as far back as 1969.

    Interestingly the Aarey forest is also home to around 10,000 tribals who have been living there since centuries- many of them have already lost their homes, their lands and their livelihoods due to increasing encroachment by the State on forest land. The ones who havent been displaced already are under constant pressure to move into the SRA buildings or move out of the forest entirely once and for all. One of the greatest challenges in this particular case has been to educate ordinary mumbaikars about the importance of forests - why we need to protect them - and get them involved in this fight as it has been a matter of enormous challenge to counter the government’s pro development propaganda. At the same time, what comes as a sign of great strength is the fact that a lot of urban educated youngsters have been participating in the struggle (including risking arrests and detention). They bring with them a list of skill sets - from designing websites to handling social media to setting up petitions to filing RTIs. What is even more appealing is that these people come from all the spectrum of society comprising of writers, artists, engineers, architects, freelancers, students. Bands like Maati Baani and Swadesi Nation have created musical scores to help raise awareness about the issue. Most recently, a youth based cultural initiative (using rap music) was set up to help raise funds and awareness regarding the Aarey forest controversy. As more awareness spreads, more and more youngsters are joining the movement.

    The Aarey land has been consistently facing onslaughts from many development projects every now and then. Government after government has not shown any sensitivity towards the flora and fauna of the area, and the fact that these forests are crucial in maintaining the macro climate of Mumbai and its surrounding regions.

     Looking back to its history of ownership, the Aarey Dairy farm was established here in 1950s, and eventually ran into losses. Subsequently, the land was also given to State Reserve Police Force (SRPF), Force One (Mumbai Police), and Film City, among others, leading to the division of forest land into smaller fragments. The latest in this series of onslaughts is the Metro project, which is not only threatening the environment, but is also a huge concern for the locals residing here, most of them belonging to the Warli Adivasi tribe. Adivasis live in harmony with the forest area and are completely dependent on the forest for their survival.

    The Aarey forest dwellers have had to wage several struggles simply to assert their existence on the land. One of the earlier protests led by the then firebrand leader Prakash Bhoir dates back to 1982which was more at a local scale and failed to mobilize concerns of the masses .It was only later in June 2017, around 1,000 Adivasis gathered in the Aarey Milk Colony  when  it suddenly came to light that the state government has given  a nod the proposal of an extension of Byculla Zoo, and  plans to demolish the existing tribal houses and transform them into a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building. In June 2017, Prakash Bhoir, the leader of Shramik Adivasi Sangathana, when speaking to The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier, said, “Every now and then, they are coming with infrastructure and recreation projects,” and alleged that the authorities were incessantly cutting the forest trees for development projects. Around 27 Adivasi settlements are spread across Aarey. The Adivasis who have been living in the area since before the dairy was set up in 1951,alleged that more than 60 hutments near Navshad Pada lack electricity and water supply. The civic authorities come down to the settlements without any prior notice. The Adivasis who are the native residents of the area have said that they have even been paying taxes at the rate of Rs. 1 per guntha (1/40th of an acre) of land. At the time of the protest against the zoo, they questioned where they would rehabilitate their cattle, and what would become of their farms.  As per the Adivasis in the region, earlier, a major area of the green cover was already lost to an NSG training center, Film City, and housing complexes.

    Off late in 2015, in an order passed by the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in New Delhi cleared the “decks for the construction of a car depot for Metro III project in Aarey” . The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited expedited the felling of trees in the Aarey region following this order. In September 2018, in a matter of two days, the MMRCL felled more than 200 trees. In fact, it claimed that it had permission to clear 2,700 trees in the region. In the wake of this event a city based NGO, Vanshakti, approached the NGT protesting against the Metro shed/depot for the 33km line between South and North Mumbai. Eventually, the petition was disposed off. Reportedly, the NGT had asked the petitioner to approach the High Court or the Supreme Court, saying that it did not have the jurisdiction to decide whether Aarey is a forest. However, the Bombay High Court (HC) passed an order on October 24 preventing the Tree Authority (TA) from granting permission for the felling of trees in the city. The Court observed that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner may grant permission in some urgent cases where the trees pose a danger to property or life. However, it said that panels of experts must be constituted as laid down by the law. The petition in the case was filed by Zoru Bathena, an activist who sought to restrain the authority from adjudicating applications seeking permission to cut trees.

    As of today the battle over the car shed is not over. Mumbaikars have spoken out against Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) decision to cut around 2700 trees in Aarey forest to make way for a car shed for Metro. But despite after so many campaigns and protests, nothing seems to have come out. The only option before the citizens is to move the court. Certainly the people here are not against development but development which comes at the cost of such massive deforestation and displacement is one such thing people there do not want to look up to.


    Array remains as the last green lung of Mumbai consisting of 27 hamlets and about a hundred species of flora and fauna. This too is now being opened up for various developers in the garb of various projects. The tribal community here being close knit could mobilize enough voices to protest asking help from each pada (settlement)in the vicinity of the forest. Time and again in a piecemeal fashion chunks of land is being taken away in the name of development, although here have been instances when the local authorities have resorted to listing to the woes of the people but nothing concrete could be derived out of it and thus eventually got subdued with time. For environmental activist and NGOs too it has not been a smooth sail either. “Offline we are threatened with police complaints and online we are trolled if we try to oppose tree cuttings in Aarey,” said activist Nishant Bangera. When we opposed illegal tree cutting at Aarey, the officials asked the police to file a false manhandling complaint against us. And when we raise our voices on social media, we get trolled, clearly by hired public relations agencies, who all seem to post with unusual alpha-numeric usernames, clearly with the intent browbeating us, labelling us as anti-development and anti-national”.

    Local tribals too complain that opposing tree felling has become very risky. “They come in large numbers with huge police presence and two layers of security. Forget opposing them, it gets difficult to even penetrate the cover to reach the tree,” says tribal leader Laxman Dalvi. “These are trees our forefathers had planted; who are these people to cut them? We are glad that the city is coming out in our support and feel emboldened now”.

    Not just through intimidation, authorities have also tried to push their agenda through surreptitiousness. Public notices for tree cuttings, a mandatory provision, would be put in obscure newspapers to avoid catching the public eye. Suddenly and quietly, rules are tweaked to conveniently help the government agencies. Thus what we can infer is that one hand the government is trying every bit to push its agenda of development at the cost of a loss of an entire range of biodiversity while on the other hand with more and more enlightened citizens joining the protest and the controversy gaining widespread momentum somewhere people’s participation has been able to give the local authorities a tough time moving forward with their reckless actions in the forest.

As the fight to save Aarey enters a crucial stage, it is essential that more and more people come forward and join the protest through public campaigns, tree trails, art events, landscape because at such high stakes it is extremely crucial that the have nots stay as bonded as they can and raise a voice strong enough to prevent this massive wipeout of an entire ecosystem.


    Perhaps the most clear and insightful understanding of the gradations and potential of citizen participation was developed by Sherry Arnstein. In her pioneering 1969 article, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, a mainstay among US city planning educators to this day, she explains the concept using a ladder. Each step of the ladder represents a different level of involvement by the community, and as one goes up the ladder, community members are given more power in the process of decision-making.

    In an attempt to fit in the case of Arrey conflict into this ladder of participation we can easily establish the fact that there was absolutely no manipulation or therapy of the have nots of any sort. The decisions taken by the haves of this case did not consider the importance of even the centuries old ecosystem, leave alone the consent of the tribals living there. Neither was there an attempt to ‘fit’ them into mainstream society or more to say focus on adjusting the values and attitudes of community members so that they become more in line with those development aspirations of government through relocation or resettlement schemes. The community involvement stopped right after being told by officials what is happening, and that too only after the DP 2034 was made public. Information given at this very stage of the process is way too late as changes made could be no longer reversed or discouraged for that common good, in this case too, the information of felling the trees and land reclamation from forest given to the public was quite irrelevant and incomplete indicating the half-hearted attempt of tokenism by the authorities. Unfortunately, this has been currently the maximum standard of participation in the case of Arrey controversy owing to which the city witnessed massive protest outbreaks all over. Thus it goes without saying that the case is a classic example of a complete neglect of people’s participation in decision making in the context of common property resource management due to which the city is on the verge of facing widespread civil unrest in the concerned pretext.


    The case of Arrey forest definitely has a clearly defined user boundary in terms the people it inhabits. Although with time, it has also been noticed that these people were able to mobilize other citizens from all across the city to create a bigger impact in conducting demonstrations and protest against the authorities. However, there is an absolute neglect of ‘matching rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions’ which is exactly what the second principal speaks of. In fact the Arrey community do not have any rules and regulations kept in place which specifically is meant to safeguard the forest in the first place. The only set of rules which defined the ecological importance  of the forest was its categorization to NDZ in the DP of 1994  which was later purposefully struck off   in the proposed DP of 2034 to make it easier for new projects to slowly filtrate in .All the decision making process related to the wellbeing and future of the forest has never included the Adivasis who live right there in the forest and share a symbiotic relation with the it-speaking of the sheer contrast with the third principle of Ostrom. Also ,leave alone including them in the decision making process ,the communities’ concerns related to the forest were never even given due respect by the  outside authorities whatsoever in the first place.

     Meanwhile, the forest community although large, somewhere lacks a spearheading or a missing ‘champion’ in place. Reportedly there is neither a well-defined system to monitor the member’s behaviors nor penalty mechanism for the violators. Somewhere down the line even after such hue and cry,  people in the city are not mobilized enough to stand up for a common good of people living inside Array and devise a mechanism where management is  more of a bottoms up approach and the voices are loud and empowered enough for authorities to  pay due respects to the decisions taken by the public as whole. As of now, for the adivasis, the battle to sworn themselves as the rightful owners of these forest still continues and only time has answers as to when and how this twenty-five-year-old dispute ends on a peaceful, sustainable and an all-inclusive note.

By Utkarshi Arya: Utkarshi Arya is an Architect and Infrastructure planner form Faculty of Planning, CEPT University.She is an avid writer and researcher at heart , she holds keen interest discourses in the spectrum of Urban Planning -specially in the field of public service delivery and Smart Cities in the Asia Pacific context.Her works include formulation of city infrastructure plans on water supply,storm water and wastewater management for select small to mid-sized towns in India.


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