The city of dreams, Mumbai, is the most densely populated city in the country. The pressure on resources is immense – with never enough for everybody. Once upon a time, there used to be four beautiful rivers around the city – namely, Dahisar, Poisar, Oshiwara and Mithi. Today, they are testament to the high levels of pollution caused by urbanization. Resembling drains, these rivers are clogged with waste from the city. On the banks of the Dahisar river inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, are Adivasi communities fighting to hold on to their lives which are heavily dependent on natural resources in and around the forests – the river being one of the most important resources. Mumbai based photographer Aslam Saiyad speaks to us about his work – Mumbai River Photo Project, that tells the stories of these rivers, through the lives of the Adivasi communities and their children.
1. Can you tell us a little about how you started this project, and your motivation behind it?
I began to spend time on weekends in the national park, getting to know the communities, and thought of doing a photo project based on the rivers. The focus of my project was not just the river but the communities around it. Many of the communities here are phasing out. I remember going for an event where one of the banners at the venue read: ‘If our language dies out, with that we will also die out.’ So I wanted to tell stories of the river through the communities that live around it. I worked for about eight months clicking pictures around the Dahisar river and exhibited them in March 2017 under the name “Discovering the Forgotten Rivers Of Bombay” along the river banks, and streets of Dahisar Gaothan.
2. Your work on documenting the lives of diverse communities – namely Warli, Agri and Koli communities living within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) brings forward the rights and entitlement issues surrounding the lives of Adivasi communities and their children. Please illustrate how being from a tribal community affects their childhoods.
While documenting the work of an organization called River March (whose goal is to rejuvenate Mumbai’s rivers), I came across Adivasi communities who lived inside SGNP. I noticed some children standing in school uniforms a few kilometers into the park. They were getting ready to walk to their school, seven kilometers away! This surprised me because children living in one of the world’s richest municipalities didn’t have access to a vehicle that could take them to school.
Additionally, the adults of the Padas (Hamlets) work in nearby housing societies as domestic help or housekeeping staff, leaving children to stay home alone. This puts the responsibility on the older siblings to take care of their younger siblings until their parents return home. Often, the most loyal stray dogs also hang around the padas, keeping an eye on the children.
The SGNP is actually the result of a long-drawn process of land acquisition, which began in 1950. These acquisitions often took place in a random and chaotic manner, sometimes without even any official registration.
The rapid expansion of the SGNP in 1967 effectively forced Adivasi residents to be included within its new boundaries, putting them in a position of passive encroachers. The tribal communities lived there, but with very few rights. They are not permitted to hunt, fish, raise animals, farm, or cut wood; depending on the local land status, they are also not permitted to build permanent constructions. They are not entitled to power and water connections, or any other utilities.
Considered as trespassers on their own land, the tribal communities have started finding alternative survival strategies. They are forced to find sources of income from outside the forest. Children are the worst sufferers in conditions like these, which have a direct impact on them. They have to finish all their school work before sunset. Electricity is restricted to them due to the “fortress conservation” attitude of the government. These children meet their urban counterparts every day in schools, and get the first taste of discrimination there.
3. Adivasi children living within the park live a dichotomous existence. While they dress up in school uniforms and attend regular schools outside the park, they have no transportation services to reach schools. What are some other dilemmas they face as a result of being part of both these worlds? How does their association with the word ‘adivasi’ affect their daily life?
The school going children have become modern. Many of them now have smart phones. The children usually don’t like to go to the forest to collect firewood and other forest product. They feel it that it is sign of backwardness. The older children irrespective of their gender go to collect water. They don’t celebrate their festivals with Warli traditions. There has been a trend of urbanization of festivals. They now celebrate Dahi handi and Ganesh festivals. Many families in padas put up small fruits stalls as there are thousands of tourists visiting SGNP all year round. It is mostly the children who run these stalls. Adivasi boys mostly stop education after school due various reasons . They start working at an early age. Boys get married when they are around twenty, and girls when they are around eighteen.
4. The health of a forest is closely linked with the survival of the communities residing within it. How has urbanization and pollution impacted the lives of Adivasi communities and their children?
Inside the park, the river is drastically different from how it is outside SGNP. It is beautiful, and the water is clear. Children bathe and the play inside the rivers, and tribal communities have built their lives along the banks. Outside, it resembles a sewer into which encroaching human settlements, dhobi ghats and tabelas dump their waste. Dahisar river flows out and meets the Manori creek which carries out all the plastic, debris, cow dung and urban waste. This directly effects the marine life of the coastal Mumbai. Agricultural communities traditionally were dependent on fishing in creeks, but now there are no fish available in the creek. Many of them have deserted their traditional occupations for the same reason.
This encroachment, urbanization and resulting pollution has had a direct impact on the quality of lives the children from the communities lead. The issues I pointed out have a direct impact on the quality of food they eat, water they drink, the sanitation facilities and the air they breathe.
5. Having been born and brought up in Mumbai, how do you think the lives of children outside the park differ from the lives of children within the park?
The world outside is completely different. Children in the city get water from taps, that’s the only source they see. There is complete disconnect from natural water bodies like wells and rivers. On the contrary, the children from the padas help families collect water from the river, well and tube wells irrespective of their gender. They are very close to nature and they understand the importance of their natural habitat. They know their lessons on river pollution well. In the city all the waste is thrown into rivers which they finally called as nullah.
In urban slums the ladies collect water and not the men. In the Adivasi communities, I see very less gender discrimination. It is not unusual to see teenage boys fetching water along with the girls.
Children in cities, live in houses measured according to square feet. Everything is restricted – a ten-year-old boy has to be escorted if he wants to buy a chocolate. In the padas the space is not bound by measurements of square feet. They learn to swim in rivers, they eat wild fruits, and are very confident about facing challenges. With proper education and support, they will excel in their lives.
6. When you think about the time you spent with the Adivasi community at SGNP, does the memory of any child stand out? Can you tell us about him/her?
Dinesh Himai is one of the few Adivasi children who have done their graduation. He is quite happy that he lives in the forest. He loves nature and wants to protect it. He also educates his friends on why forests should be conserved and why it is important for their survival. Dinesh Himai has learnt Warli painting and is one of the very children in SGNP who know this art. He now trains other children as well. He has also travelled to many places in India as a Warli painter to showcase his work.
Dinesh always talks to me of this one memory he will never forget – One day, a film crew came into the jungle, and ruined his favourite study place. The foliage of the tree was chopped off as per the requirement of the film. It was under that tree that he studied for the three years of his graduation.