Indeed, the comparison is a culture shock. As you leave behind the bustle of the complex and reach the quiet Back Road that encircles it, the din of the traffic is replaced by the thrill of birds whistling. The mangroves beyond the road stretch as far as the eye can see. While Lokhandwala Complex is so cramped with buildings that you can hardly see the sky, this side is an expanse of blue.
One asks Mr Sahni, co-founder of the Lokhandwala Environment Group (LEG), about their initiative. “Well, I moved in here a couple of years ago,” he says, gesturing to his neat little apartment. “I have always been fond of my morning walk. I found there was this long, winding road at the back of the complex, which was quite a haven for joggers. Motorists did not use it much because they preferred the short main road.”
Unfortunately, some unwanted attention came the way of this serene little stretch. Mr Sahni remembers, “One morning in 1999, I was on my regular stroll when I noticed that a huge amount of debris had been dumped along the road. A couple of other regular walkers had seen it, too. We began to discuss this strange development. Apparently, some trucks laden with construction material had been doing the rounds of the area in the night, and were using the broad unused stretch to unload their waste. We were all very disturbed by this.”
The illegal dumping continued for long. To make things worse, the place also became a transit point for garbage collection. So the muck, debris and garbage grew and grew, and piles of rubbish would perennially line the road.
But this group of people decided that merely being upset would not do. “We resolved to do something about it,” Mr Sahni says. “There were all these wonderful birds and marsh herons that inhabited the area, and of course, the debris and garbage got in the way of our morning walks. Besides, it was an eyesore.”
Mr Sahni and the friends he made that morning, Mr Patel and Mr Rishi Agarwal, along with local politician Baldev Khosa (a former actor who was Mr Sahni’s classmate at the FTII) approached the municipal corporation for help. Not expecting anything to happen, really, but willing to try anyway. This thought was the beginning of LEG.
But they were in for a pleasant surprise. “Honestly speaking, we expected to encounter the typical laziness that government offices are reputed for, but we found they were most willing to help,” Mr Sahni says. “That has completely changed the way I perceive government machinery. If you have a genuine problem and you are willing to help them alleviate it—and are willing to discuss issues with a cool head—they are always at your service. It is a question of taking the first step.” BMC representatives surveyed the area, and provided the residents with tractors and bulldozers to clear the waste.
Godrej chipped in with funds, and the Rotary Club and the Lions Club also pooled in their resources. However, it was the entry of actress Raveena Tandon that was another pleasant shock for Mr Sahni, and lent that all-important star value to the campaign. “It gave us good publicity. Raveena is extremely sincere—she herself volunteered to help. In fact, she even found out that there are jackals on the Back Road, which are in danger of losing one of their few habitats in the city.” Ms Tandon has now donated some benches for walkers who need a breather.
However, while Mr Sahni is grateful to her, it remains that a large percentage of the film industry has made Lokhandwala its home—and has chosen to turn a blind eye to the issue. “We film stars live and travel in luxury, largely unmindful of the real world that exists outside the illusion of our studios,” he says. “Mark my words, if we continue in this complacent fashion—all of us—an ecological disaster will unfold right here in our backyard.”
Mercifully, one disaster waiting to happen was stopped in time. Part of the Back Road is now being converted into a Joggers’ Park similar to the one in Bandra. LEG organised a tree plantation ceremony on May 1 where residents of the area participated as enthusiastically as members of the association. About a hundred trees were planted that day. The ultimate aim is for a good ten thousand. That will change the landscape of this concrete jungle.