- The Indian government has decided to cut around 16,500 trees to redevelop old government housing colonies which it claims are in poor condition.
- Though the people of Delhi, already reeling under the impact of high levels of air pollution throughout the year, are against cutting down of such a high number of trees, the government claims green cover will increase after the project.
- Citizens held a protest on Sunday at the project site and are now holding a relay protest to maintain the pressure. They have also approached the Delhi High Court which has stopped any tree cutting until July 4.
Till a few years ago, the decision to remove 16,500 trees from the heart of Delhi, for the purpose of development, would perhaps have not raised any eyebrows. Now, thanks to the intense limelight on the national capital for regularly recording toxic air pollution levels over the past few years, citizens of Delhi have dug in their heels to stop tree felling at any cost.
On Monday, the Delhi High Court directed that no more trees should be cut till July 4 which is the next date of hearing.
The project in question is the redevelopment of seven General Pool Residential Accommodation (GPRA) colonies for government officials. Of these, the ones at Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar will be redeveloped by the National Buildings Construction Corporation Limited (NBCC). The colonies at Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Srinivaspuri and Mohammadpur will be the responsibility of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD).
The aim of the project is to replace 12,970 existing and old government officers’ houses, dwelling units of Type-I to IV with a built up area (BUA) of approximately 749,000 square metres, with approximately 25,667 dwelling units of Type-II to VI with BUA of approximately 2.91 million square metres.
The project also includes the development of government office accommodation for nearly 242,000 square metre at Netaji Nagar and other commercial complexes. The aim is to complete the project in five years in a phased manner.
The total estimated cost of the project is Rs 328.35 billion (Rs 32,835 crore) including maintenance and operation costs for 30 years. It received a go-ahead from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Cabinet in July 2016. Subsequently, it secured the requisite environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Compensatory afforestation elsewhere is not the same as losing trees in the city
The project is in the eye of the public storm as it involves cutting down of over 16,500 trees in a low-density government housing area. Many of these trees are decades old and the people who have united against the tree felling believe that compensatory afforestation to be carried out elsewhere will not compensate for the loss in the heart of the city.
Prerna Prasad, who is part of the group which is organising the citizens’ movement, said they are not against development but “insane” cutting down of trees is not development.
“It was not an organised protest. I just came across a video about the issue on social media and I felt bad about the removal of so many trees. I then got connected with other organisations and individuals with similar environmental concerns. We got united and unity speaks,” said Prasad, who along with several hundred others, protested at one such site at Sarojini Nagar.
Of the 16,500 trees estimated to be cut for the project, about 11,000 are in the Sarojini Nagar area alone.
On Sunday evening, over 1,000 people gathered at the Sarojini Nagar area to protest against the project. Calling it Delhi’s ‘Chipko movement’, they hugged the trees, chanted slogans against the government and tied green ribbons on the tree trunks.
Though it is far from the original Chipko movement, the protest by Delhi’s residents is reminiscent of the protests in the early 1970s which forced the government to rethink the cutting of trees in the Garhwal Himalayas. The real difficulty for the protestors now will be to sustain the pressure on the government to drop the idea or do it without cutting the trees, especially old ones.
In the 1970s in Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh), villagers united against a government decision allowing cutting of trees by a company. Village communities, especially women, hugged trees to stop their chopping. The action ultimately forced the government to retract.
Even prior to this movement, there was another Chipko movement in the 1730s in Rajasthan when dozens of people of the Bishnoi community sacrificed their lives to protect the trees from being cut on orders of the King. Ultimately the king had to pass an order preventing the cutting of trees in all the Bishnoi villages.
A legal reprieve
Meanwhile, following the protest, the Delhi High Court on Monday stopped any more tree cutting till July 4 and sought answers from the national government while hearing an urgent petition on the issue.
“I believe that the Delhi High Court order that came today was because of our protest of Sunday. They realise that people are united against the project. It is just a temporary relief but a signal for us that if we are united against it then we will win and ensure the rollback of the government’s decision,” said Prasad while clarifying that this is not a political movement but a citizen initiative.
“The protest will happen till the government rolls back the decision. The actual victory will be when the government passes the order that none of the trees will be cut. It has to happen on an immediate basis,” added Prasad while emphasising that billions of rupees and industrialists are involved in the project.
The protestors have started a relay protest at the site to maintain the pressure and vowed to continue until they save every single tree.
Can highly polluted Delhi afford losing its green cover?
While hearing a petition, the Delhi High Court questioned whether Delhi can afford such a massive cutting of trees. The Court’s question is significant as India’s capital city has repeatedly earned the dubious distinction of being among the world’s most polluted cities over the past few years. In May, the World Health Organisation released a report that stated that India has 14 out of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of Particulate Matter 2.5 concentrations. In 2014 and 2016 too, WHO reports had stressed that Delhi is among the world’s most polluted cities.
WHO reports and other similar studies over past few years have resulted in an intense debate in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) area where toxic levels of air quality across the year have become a regular feature. Perhaps this is what drove people to come on streets to save these thousands of trees that serve as lungs of the city which otherwise increasingly resembles a concrete jungle.
Anumita Roychowdhury, of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based environment thinktank, said that “there cannot be mindless tree cutting like this” but keeping in mind that authorities have to balance the protection of trees with development, the need is to find design solutions that are viable.
“This is where the design solutions come in … that the current tree grid can get reintegrated with the development design. They need to focus on that first to ensure that the number of trees to be cut can be absolutely minimised. Priority has to be given to finding design solutions to integrate the current tree grid in the design of the redevelopment project and it is possible,” Roychowdhury emphasised.
She said that the government can do redevelopment but what is needed is that it is done while minimising impact on the green cover.
Government defends the move
Defending the move, national government’s Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs assured that for every tree cut 10 more will be planted. India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) also argued that the redevelopment of the seven government colonies will increase green area coverage by about three times the existing green space.
The ministry claimed that the re-development of the seven colonies is being done with complete adherence to environmental sustainability and green building concepts and special attention is being given towards retaining the maximum number of existing trees and incorporating them in a large cluster as an integral part of landscaping design scheme.
It said that only 14,031 trees will be cut of the existing 21,040 trees and instead 23,475 trees shall be available in these colonies after the redevelopment. In addition, 135,460 trees will be planted to create an “urban forest”.
Meanwhile, the NBCC, which is executing the project, on Monday claimed that proposed redevelopment of seven colonies will give a green facelift to Delhi with tree cover to grow up by about four times.
“Utmost care is being taken to protect the environment while redeveloping General Pool Residential Accommodation (GPRA) colonies in the national capital to utilise existing land resources in the most efficient manner and meet the growing demand for built-up space,” said Anoop Kumar Mittal, chairman and managing director of the NBCC, a public sector unit under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA).
“While redeveloping the colonies, special care and attention is being given towards retaining the maximum number of existing trees and incorporating them in a large cluster as an integral part of landscaping design scheme,” added Mittal while stressing that the old colonies have hundreds of unserviceable and unlivable units.
Justifying the project, a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the NBCC and the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) for the redevelopment of these colonies in October 2016 had noted that there is an acute shortage of government housing in Delhi-National Capital Region in various categories.
The MoU had said that the redevelopment of old colonies will not only replace the old dilapidated buildings with modern environment-friendly houses but provide optimum utilisation of land.
However, such assurances failed to cut ice with those protesting against the move as they point out saplings can’t match the effect of the fully grown old trees
“Plantation for the recently redeveloped East Kidwai Nagar that has come up is not complete. So to assure people that all the number of trees that will be cut will be doubled or ten times in the next 30-40 years is not convincing enough because there is evidence to prove otherwise,” said Kanchi Kohli, who is a legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme.
Concerns of citizens regarding the efficacy of the compensatory afforestation are not ill-founded. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had found that “against the obligation of 65,090 (13,018×5) compensatory tree planting during 2014-17, the Forest Department (of Delhi) planted only 21,048 saplings leaving a shortfall of 44,042 trees (67 percent).”
The tree felling issue has its fair share of politics involved between the national government and the state government of Delhi. Soon after the controversy broke a few days ago, the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government was quick to point out that the permission was not given by Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain and instead he objected to the cutting of such large number of trees. However, the government of India claimed that the project had a go-ahead from the Delhi government.
“The permission to cut trees in an area over one hectare is given by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi but files are routed through the minister. Whenever the file (of this project) came to us we objected. We don’t want even one tree to be cut in Delhi especially when the city is facing so much of pollution,” said Hussain.
According to documents reviewed by the Mongabay-India, Hussain had objected to the cutting of large number of trees. In an official note earlier this year, he observed that “the number of trees proposed to be cut is too large.” He had added that the “project proponent may be requested to submit revised project report with the reduced requirement of tree cutting and feasibility of translocating trees that can be saved.”
In another note, Hussain said that “considering the severity of air pollution in Delhi, there is a strong need for balancing the development/housing activities with environment protection. Cutting of thousands of trees to construct multi-storeyed flats in Netaji Nagar is only going to increase the need for greater number of trees.”
Though the last word in the ongoing battle is yet to be written it would surely indicate whether citizens are willing to take up a fight against the national government to save their environment.
BANNER IMAGE: A sign at the citizen protest against the felling of trees in Delhi. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.