Battle for Aarey: Activists leverage social media to take on Mumbai Metro

Rarely has the green lobby found much success in a city that unabashedly sets business above everything else. But with the Bombay High Court granting a temporary reprieve (no tree to be cut till September 30, it ruled on Tuesday) and agreeing to review the environmentalists’ arguments, Mumbai’s fabled business—first attitude appears to have been breached over the upcoming Rs 23,136 crore metro line. And environmentalists and citizen-activists have demonstrated remarkable persuasion skills as they have used the formidable power of social media to win followers and influence public opinion. 

At stake is the choice of a site for the proposed metro car-shed. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has chosen a portion of the 3,180-acre Aarey Milk Colony and said that while this involves chopping down around 2,700 trees, it is the minimum collateral damage for a city choked by traffic and pollution. Development is as important as the environment, it has said, framing the issue in binaries. Amitabh Bachchan has pitched in with his voice and  social media clout in their favour. 

The activists say this is not a development versus environment debate, but an attempt to save the city from the grubby hands of corrupt politicians. With them are the golden-voiced Lata Mangeshkar, actors Raveena Tandon, Dia Mirza, Shraddha Kapoor and others. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray and son, Aditya have also chimed in with their support.

The Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul) is the only corporate entity on the green line so far. The iconic Amul girl is on hoardings saying, “Do not make them histree. Cut yellow (Butter), not greens.” K V Sridhar, founder and chief creative officer for Hyper Collective believes that Amul’s stand is a good move. “Good brands take a stand, whether it is protecting trees or favouring development. They can’t fence-sit anymore,” he adds.

The support has surprised activists. “Protest groups come up spontaneously; sometimes we don’t even know who is protesting where,” said Amrita Bhattacharjee, a representative of the Aarey conservation group. Formed in 2015, shortly after the site was selected for the metro shed, the group is an informal citizens’ collective. On social media, it is represented by college students and fresh graduates with aggressive handles, buzzing 24x7. “We are common citizens and have no network with celebrities. They have responded on their own to our social media attempts,” she adds. 

While celebrities have come out strongly, brands have not been as vocal except Amul. GCMMF says that Amul’s is a neutral and nuanced stand that should not be framed within a binary framework. “Those ads are topical. It is not Amul taking a stand, but depicting what is going on in the city,” said R S Sodhi, managing director, GCMMF. 

However even a single brand standing shakily by their side is enough for the social media savvy band of conservationists. Several members from the group tweeted, “It’s so rare to see a big brand like @Amul_Coop standing against government for a cause.” 

Forced to retaliate, city planners have stepped on to the social media minefield as well. Ashwini Bhide, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) chief has been tweeting via her personal account, countering assertions made by celebrities and clarifying the stand on the project. Plus there are full page ads in mainline print publications and a short film on the benefits of the metro, with Amitabh Bachchan using his baritone to drive the message home. MMRC is the nodal agency for the Metro-line 3 project, which is a part of the larger Metro network.

The pro-Metro team has also launched a hashtag #AareyAikaNa, which in Marathi translates to ‘hey listen’. But the other side has been quick to push back with #AareyAiklaNa, which in Marathi translates to ‘yeah, we’ve heard you’. In the run-up to the state polls, the battle will get more shrill. But even if that is all that the conservationists gain from this battle, it would still be victory. 

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