Fight and Flight

Khalil Laltoo - India


January 14, 2019

It was a warm Sunday morning and I had just made my way down the bustling
and noisy Nagar Road, to the front of Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. When you
hear sanctuary, you probably get images of grand landscapes of preserved
natural beauty. Not Salim Ali. This small park no more than a few
kilometers wide is the last remaining swatch of open, green land on my side
of the Mula Mutha River, which divides the northern part of Pune from the
downtown area. Though it is just minutes from my TFI school, I would never
even have found out about its existence if I hadn’t received an invitation
to be part of a silent human chain in protest of the city’s recent plans to
route the new metro directly through it.

At the beginning, there were only about 50 or so people gathered at the
entrance. After a brief talk about the sanctuary, I was given a sign and
directed to my spot in the chain. At the start we seemed to only garner
the brief attention of passing rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists, but as
the morning pressed on, more and more people joined the chain. Taking a
walk down the street, I saw people of all ages lined up, holding
conversations, teaching and inspiring each other. I learned from one of the
sanctuary’s expert that the park is an important rest stop for nearly 40
species of migratory birds, from Southeast Asia to North America. I even
saw a few of my students! One of them held a sign that read. “Don’t be a
nerd, Save the birds!” By the end, it was reported that over 700 people had
taken part in the chain. I couldn’t believe that there had been such a
turnout; it was a moment of real inspiration for me. Though no one could be
sure the external impact that this event would have, the sense of communal
support and strength I felt was undeniable. Three days or so later, a story
about the chain was published in the Times of India. That article is linked
below.

timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/citizens-join-hands-to-save-salim-ali-bird-sanctuary/articleshow/67006420.cms

[image: IMG_20181208_100028.jpg]
[image: SAVE_20190114_125655.jpeg]

Two weeks later, I attended a sort of town hall-style meeting where
residents of Kalyani Nagar (The neighborhood the redirection of the metro
would primarily impact) would have a chance to speak with the general
manager of public relations, as well as the director of the Pune Metro
project itself. Attendance was again, surprisingly high. It seemed that the
whole neighborhood had crammed itself into this room, and folks were not
there to listen politely. As the meeting began, several members forcefully
objected to the 45 minute presentation that the metro officials had
planned, arguing that they would need more time for questions. Said
presentation moved slowly, and despite the constant interruption, I was
able to understand the core of the issue a lot better. The main reason for
the re-routing of the metro given by the officials was that, according to a
stipulation from the Archaeological Survey of India, transport
infrastructure cannot be built within 100 m of a historical site. The
original plan to go straight through Nagar Road would put the metro in
range of Aga Khan Palace, an important landmark where Ghandi and his wife
Kasturba were interned following the launch of the quit India movement in
in 1942. They claimed that though the new route was considerably longer and
more expensive, this stipulation forced their hand. After the presentation,
the room became quite heated. The subject of conversation alternated
quickly and there seemed to be a lot of tension not only between the
residents and the officials, but amongst the residents themselves, who held
contrasting viewpoints and preferred different solutions to the problem,
such as going underground vs. halting construction a stop earlier.

When at last, the issue of the bird sanctuary was brought up by an activist
I had met at the human chain, an older resident attacked him instantly-
“What is this ridiculous shit about birds?! People’s houses and communities
are a stake and you’re talking about birds?!” I had been taking notes
diligently, trying not to get caught up in the din, but as the discussion
drew to a close, I found myself standing there with a microphone in my
hand. I told the project director that I when I teach my students about
climate change, they can’t connect with the idea, because they have no
access to nature in this part of the city. I asked him -if the metro’s
purpose really is to be eco friendly- can you even call Pune a green city,
if there isn’t a single patch of green left? His answer had nothing to do
with what I had said.

[image: IMG_20181208_105936.jpg]

The following morning, as I sat on the floor of my kitchen peeling peas
with my host parents, I told them about the meeting and asked if they’d
heard anything about the conflict in their circle. They told me that they
were aware; they’d been sent a link to the petition that would stop
construction earlier along the route to avoid going past Aga Khan Palace.
When I asked them if they had signed it, they looked at my as if I was
crazy. “That would inconvenience us and everyone past Kalyani Nagar,” they
argued. “They’re rich over there. People in our neighborhood need the metro
a lot more.” I hadn’t even thought about this. There had been no
representation from my neighborhood at the meeting, and so no one had
brought it up. It was a reminder that all solutions have downsides, and
often those who would be negatively affected by a seemingly simple solution
are not included in the conversation. Thinking back on it, I don’t recall
any birds being present at that meeting either.

A few more weeks have passed, and though negotiations with the city have
been slow and frustrating, the residents have kept pushing in other ways.
Just yesterday I went with a few friends to help paint a mural at the
entrance of the sanctuary. The work had started the day before, and already
the unlikely canvas was covered in rivers, trees, sunsets, and of course,
birds. Impressively, most of the painting had been done by children from
the neighboring area, under the direction of an incredibly kind and
talented artist. After we had finished our share, we took a walk through
the sanctuary. I was shocked to see how far the development had come since
the last time I had been there just 2 weeks back. Rows of trees had been
illegally cut and the woods looked much more sparse. A new dirt path lined
with tree stumps marked the course the metro would follow. Already things
didn’t feel the same there.We did see one bird, however. A kingfisher,
vested in its majestic blue, perched on a low hanging branch.

While future of the sanctuary is hard to predict, one thing is clear: the
spirit of the Punekar is alive, and it is bright.

[image: IMG-20190113-WA0011.jpg]
[image: IMG-20190113-WA0000.jpg]

[image: IMG-20190113-WA0009.jpg]






Khalil Laltoo