A week after the protests, I ventured into the forest for the first time.
My morning starts with some armchair activism. A cup of tea and Facebook `likes’ for all the wrongs in our world. But something about Aarey bothered me deeply. Whether it was government apathy, or the complete disregard for people living there, or maybe the fact that young people like me had taken the issue in their own hands and were making an effort to bring about change.
So I trotted off on the weekend with my photographer friend and it was quite an eye opener. Right at the start we found ourselves at unit number 19 at the far end of the colony. Walking down a narrow muddy path, we emerged from the lush foliage of trees into a sprawling structure with pale yellow walls. We knew where we were even before we stepped inside. The strong smell of dung welcomed us to a tabela (cattle shed).
Everyone lives like a family inside the tabela
Aarey is a milk colony that has 32 tabelas with 700 cows and buffaloes. Each tabela produces almost 800 litres of milk every day that goes fresh and unadulterated to the dairies ever morning and evening -- providing most of northern Bombay with its daily dose of milk. Set up in 1949, it had revolutionalized the production and sale of milk. Today there are hundreds of people employed there to help in this process.
Amidst the rows and rows of cattle, some napping, others grazing, we met a large man in a crisp white shirt sitting on a plastic chair counting currency notes (effect of too much milk and demonitisation?) Beside him were cans of milk and a few customers who waited in queue. He introduced himself as Momin Mustak Ali Firoz, the seth of the eponymous tabela.
The tabela sprawls across 15 acres of land, giving the cattle plenty of space
He told us about how earlier the cattle had a lot of green pasture to graze upon. But with the cutting of trees, their food had to now be sourced all the way from Pune. Walking in further, getting acquainted with the smell and the dirt around me, I noticed that the milking of the cattle had begun. It happened twice a day. Once early morning and once in the evening. “Many of our buffaloes are sick. Since they started cutting trees, the heat has increased and the cattle aren’t used to it. Our production has also gone down,” a tender said.
They asked if I wanted to try milking the cows. But I remembered a friend who accidentally fractured the cow’s nipples while doing it. “Some other time,” I responded watching them fill up buckets with white, creamy milk. It was then poured into the cans and sent across to the dairies, almost immediately.
“The milk you drink contains chemicals because it is preserved in packets in freezers for days. Ours is straight from the source -- directly to your cup,” Momin said as he offered me some chai. He was right. This tasted nothing like my morning cuppa.
This tabela produces almost 800 litres of fresh milk everyday which is sold to several dairies
With the setting sun, the tenders started ushering the buffaloes out into the backyard. It was time for their evening bath. Tightening their lungis, they got down on their haunches and splashed water all over them. The buffaloes rejoiced and started running around. One of them even pranced after my friend as she ran to save her life. One of the tenders commented, “They are planning to shift the tabelas to Palghar in a 750-acre space. Will they have so much space to run around there?"
The question made me think – of the long term effects of this move, of the domino effect on our life, of the fact that I might have to become vegan??!! I also thought about the protests that were happening, but not enough people cared because they were unaware of the direct or indirect impact on their own life.
The buffaloes are given a bath twice a day
I was told that last week the neighbouring tabela was broken into and the house of the tenders was destroyed to create space for the metro shed department. It wasn’t just the destruction of a few houses. It was the destruction of an entire business, an entire livelihood and an entire eco-system. But Momin and the cattle tenders, along with Aarey residents are determined to fight till the end.
I bid adieu to Momin Bhai and his band of buffaloes and exited, careful not to slip on piss and shit. It was then that I realised the irony of the situation – we were in deep shit already.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Devyani Nighoskar
Photographs by Rashi Arora