The Aarey Milk Colony — one of the last surviving green lungs of the financial capital of Mumbai — is back in the spotlight again. In fact, for the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), it has its own importance.
The Aarey Milk Colony or Aarey Colony that can be accessed from Goregaon in the western suburbs and Powai in the eastern suburbs has its unique biodiversity, archaeological heritage and tribal culture among other things.
It is located on the periphery of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and adjacent to Film City.
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It is a little-known forest of immense worth, and one that is today in danger of facing destruction.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation, a joint venture SPV of the Government of India and the Government of Maharashtra, is implementing Mumbai’s first fully underground Metro corridor — Metro Line-3 — running from Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ, is planning a car shed inside the Aarey Colony, located off the Western Express Highway.
The BJP-Shiv Sena government then headed by Devendra Fadnavis had moved ahead to make a car shed for Metro Line-3 and started construction. However, the previous Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government snapped it and zeroed in on an alternate site of Kanjur Marg salt pans but it was stuck in litigation. However, with a new Eknath Shinde-led government in place and Fadnavis back as Deputy Chief Minister, he has again revived the plans to have the car shed in Aarey.
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The Aarey Milk Colony has a total area of 3,160 acres of land, owned by the Dairy Development Department of the Maharashtra Government, out of which the area is available for cultivation of quality fodder and grasses is about 400 acres.
“We have also leased out the land to various organizations and institutions Maharashtra Government and the Centre. The colony houses 30 stables having a capacity for housing 500 to 550 animals in each stable.
This area is grass and scrub environment with a few hillocks, possessing two perennial and one seasonal pond as well as many seasonal streams in the area. The vast pastures of the Martian Para grass are maintained and harvested as fodder for cattle. This area, it may be recalled, also formed the nexus of the human-leopard conflict between 2002 and 2004. The habitat is highly varied consisting of scrub forest, seasonal freshwater marshes, hillocks, rocky outcrops, grass and scrub interrupted by human settlements. host to a variety of life forms thus making this area a biodiversity hotspot in Mumbai.
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A study on the biodiversity of the 12-sq km Aarey Colony by ecologists Rajesh Sanap and Zeeshan Mirza found that the colony is home to 76 species of birds, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 38 different types of reptiles, 19 spiders species and 34 different types of wildflowers.
On the top of the chain was a leopard and often there are instances of leopards from the SGNP straying into the Film City or Aarey Colony. A survey conducted by the Mumbaikars for the SGNP initiative also found that there are five to six leopards in Aarey Colony.
Several objects of archaeological importance had been found here.
“It is an important piece of nature. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Film City, and Aarey Colony is an important pieces of biodiversity. It must not be treated as a land parcel for development,” said NatConnect Director BN Kumar.
The destruction of Aarey could lead to increased downstream flooding in Mithi due to the disturbance of the water retention regime provided by Aarey. The place also acts as a buffer to the SGNP where leopards still prowl in the dark. If this buffer zone is taken away, it can give rise to negative interactions between humans and wildlife, according to the Save Aarey initiative.
The Mumbaikars for SGNP (MfSGNP), which has been working with locals to reduce human-leopard interactions, too feels that Aarey is important for biodiversity. In fact, they have started ‘Living with Leopards Network’, and are educating the local population about it.