In a quiet corner of Belapur, Navi Mumbai, tucked between the hills on one side and the sprawling city on the other, is a small residential colony. This isn’t your regular colony in a busy suburb, however. Here grow fruits, vegetables and flowers. Butterflies and bees come and go aplenty.“While the world is struggling to buy essentials during these trying COVID times, we have a cherry blossom harvest here,” says Capt. Pawnday, one of the senior-most and pioneer volunteers of the AGRO Society.
In the late 1990s, a group of citizens who bought homes and settled down in Sector 9 of Belapur realised that the barren land adjoining their complex was being encroached upon. They realised the only way to save that land was to green it up. With CIDCO handing over the land under a high-tension wire, it was impossible to use it for anything else. Measuring nearly one hectare, the decision to green the land also gave way to the founding of the AGRO Society, a residents’ association committed to environmental friendliness and conservation of the sensitive ecosystem in that area.
“Our complex sits right in the middle of a rich and sensitive ecosystem — layers of green, a valley, the hills. It was natural for us to then fill our housing colonies with lanes that are lined with flowering shrubs, courtyard gardens, kitchen gardens and even terrace gardens,” says Suresh Bhagwat, another senior volunteer who has been involved in AGRO Society’s activities from inception.
The primary aim of the AGRO Society is to keep the open land free from encroachments and develop it as a green area. Under this broad umbrella of greening, the AGRO society has explored many concepts. They first terraced the land to prevent soil erosion due to the heavy rains Belapur gets in the monsoons. They followed it up with sinking a natural open well and then followed it up with creating a pump system, laying a network of pipes for irrigation. After this, they planted gardens and other arrangements resulting in a vast expanse of a vegetable farm, a relaxing Nana-Nani Park for senior citizens, and a lush playground for younger residents. When these were regularised, they also created a butterfly and botanical garden in 2014.
The vegetable garden aims to grow crops throughout the year and sell its fresh organic produce to the residents as well as neighbouring areas. Since its inception, AGRO Society’s volunteers have experimented with growing crops; most of it has been through trial and error. The success has been in experimenting and the lessons they learnt from it. Today, there is a large variety of crops including exclusive articles such as herbs, medicinal plants and fruits besides seasonal vegetables. The AGRO Society holds its vegetable sale twice a week and is managed through online groups where they take orders as well as for delivery coordination.
The Botanical Garden & Butterfly Park (BG&BFP), which came in the second phase of development, was developed on an extended land on the eastern side with a similar purpose, i.e. to save it from being encroached by the adjoining colony for car parking. Encouraged by the visit to Ovelakar Wadi in Thane, AGRO Society volunteers started planting a variety of host and nectar plants required for the butterfly park. They soon realised that the park could also be developed into a botanical garden, and combined the work for both.
From planting saplings, digging pits, filling dump areas, to making paved pathways from waste tiles, building small bridges over small streams, the BG&BFP has come a long way. Today, it works with an objective of protecting nature, providing an opportunity for people to interact with nature, supporting educational activity and is a source of material for consumers. Through continued voluntary efforts, the BG&BFP has grown into an extremely green expanse full of butterflies and a variety of plants.
To a visitor, it is a green lush oasis in the midst of urban chaos. There are a few enthusiasts who come to sit by the lotus pond for hours, simply to be away from the urban setting. While there are others like the police inspector who comes by to be with nature since it acts as a stress-buster in his busy life.
Senior members take pride in the kind of activities this park and garden have given rise to. For example, a teenage philatelist enthusiast, with a specialisation in stamps with a butterfly theme, won an award for his project done using the butterfly park. Members of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) visit the BG&BFP regularly for conducting surveys; several schools and other organised groups visit the garden.
The biodiversity of the entire AGRO Society plot includes a variety of around 250 types of trees, 100 types plants, which in total attracts 25 to 30 species of birds, 30 to 40 varieties of butterflies and numerous insects.
The AGRO Society has many events to spread the word of their work. It has been organizing activities and events such as the Basant Utsav, a popular environment conservation annual fest open to all nature lovers of Navi Mumbai. There is Smriti Udyan for those who wish to plant a tree sapling in the memory of loved ones. There are educational tours for school children to promote sensitivity towards conservation of natural heritage and workshops on Zero Budget farming, home gardening, terrace gardening. They also hold events to sensitize children and elders on the role and importance of butterflies and insects in our environment. This is apart from nature trails and informative walks in the Butterfly Park and Valley Park. They conduct various environmental, horticultural and agricultural awareness drives and offer research and Internship facilities for students undergoing vocational training courses.
Multiple partnerships with organizations with similar objectives have been established like the farming workshops with Subhash Palekar Natural Farming, plastic recollection drive to convert plastic into city amenities with Project Mumbai, nature trails with BNHS, electronic-waste collection drive for scientific recycling with Stree Mukti Sanghatna, nature sketching with Navi Mumbai Urban Sketchers, solar cooker making and terrace gardening workshops with Marathi Vidnyan Parishad, celebrating ‘music in nature’ with the Drum Circle, etc.
In the future, AGRO Society aims to develop a mini nature theme park for children to ignite young minds on burning issues related to the environment such as trees and plant life, types of butterflies in and around Mumbai, honey bees and other insects, types of birds around as well as types of snakes and their role in ecology. They plan to do this through subject models and informative boards. As an additional attraction, they plan to build a treehouse, which urban children may be completely unaware of. The BG&BFP is in the process of developing a spot for aquatic plants and an orchid house.
During months of the COVID19-related lockdown, the Society served its residents as well as its neighbouring residents with healthy, organic, safe and freshly produced essential vegetables and fruits managed by its own resident volunteers. The Society truly lived to the status of being ‘atmanirbhar’ before the countrymen could figure out its true meaning was.
The community demonstrates a workable model consisting of three wings; (i) The members (over 100) (ii) The volunteers who contribute to the vegetable farm and BG&BFP through various means (iii) partners who have joined hands with various environmentally-conscious initiatives for workshops, nature-related creative works, recycling drives, events, school trails, environmentally-friendly product creation, etc. All the three components contribute to funding, be it through events, membership, donations, vegetable sale, etc.
The open and flexible approach of the community has helped the society sustain so many years; however, the AGRO Society strives to better its position in achieving formal recognition. The community continues to appraise and influence decision-makers – CIDCO and Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporations for mandating the greening of land under high-tension wires and formally institutionalizing the community caretaker model. That would give Society a legitimate position to establish a steady financial arrangement.
Today, the AGRO society successfully plays a dual role for its community and the nearby areas in Navi Mumbai; growing vegetables along with its sale and maintaining ecosystem through the BG&BFP, and encouraging urban residents to take measures towards environmental sustainability.
AGRO Society is open to joining hands with environment enthusiasts and associations in any form to strengthen this experiment in Urban Community Living to stop valuable neighbourhood resources to revert to their earlier status. It welcomes people to join them or start more such self-sustainable initiatives in other similar areas through community ownership for a sustainable future. And as Mario Almeida, one of the most active AGRO members, says, “We need to keep experimenting and encouraging young volunteers to join this effort for as long as nature keeps giving its blessings, we have to take care of it, just like we do of our elders!”
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(Written by Prachi Merchant and Edited by Sandhya Menon)