Hardlook: If a tree falls

With the Delhi Metro’s expansion claiming 50,000 trees, the Forest Department was roped in to plant 5 lakh saplings as compensation. A visit to the plantation sites to see what happened next

Written by Sowmiya Ashok | Updated: July 31, 2017 3:22 pm
(Above) The Tilpat Valley Biodiversity Park near Sainik Farms, where the Forest Department claims to have planted 26,000 saplings; (below) the plantation in north Delhi’s Shastri Park. Photos: Oinam Anand

The Nilgais ate the saplings. That’s R Jayakumar’s theory. For the two years he has been the scientist-in-charge of the Tilpat Valley Biodiversity Park near Sainik Farms, he has never seen a forest department official come around. “Or, maybe just once. A long time ago,” he admitted. “A man who said he was from the Forest Department stopped by my office. He drank chai and left.”

The park, spread across 180 acres, is maintained by the Delhi Biodiversity Foundation, which is aided by Delhi University where Jayakumar works. This is where the Forest Department (FD), in an affidavit submitted two years ago in the Delhi High Court, claimed to have planted 26,000 saplings as “compensatory plantation” on behalf of the Delhi Metro between 2013 and 2015. The affidavit was submitted in an air pollution case taken up suo motu by the court.

By its own admission, the FD claimed the survival rate to be 50 per cent, which means that somewhere in the midst of all the greenery at Tilpat Valley there should exist at least 13,000 saplings of “Sheesham, Pipal, Alstonia, Pilkhan, Semal, Jamun and Neem” that are halfway to becoming fully grown trees.

Show the list to Jayakumar and he smiles before striking half the species off the list. “There is no Pipal, Alstonia or Pilkhan here. Neem is an exotic species that we generally do not plant since it’s not native to Delhi,” he said. “Also, the survival rate from what they claim is possibly just 10%. It’s only after we fenced the area that the saplings we have planted survived.”

It’s a humid morning in July and Jayakumar’s formal black shoes lie close to his chair. He has already changed into hiking boots and a floppy hat worn by cricket umpires, and is walking swiftly up the narrow path surrounded on both sides by green cover. He explained what the initiative he heads is attempting to do: “We have 13 communities in all in this park. One dominant species, one or two sub-dominant species, some fairly common species and many rare species. That makes up the structure of a community to build a forest.”

Jayakumar walks past a bush as high as his waist that has sprouted yellow flowers. “These were planted by the Forest Department, which prefers exotic species since they are easily available. Called Thevetia, the plant is usually found in gardens. We will have to remove these in the future.”

Some claims, some questions
It was Christmas in 2002 when the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) began transporting the city’s residents. Over the last 14 years, trains, now numbering over 200, have crisscrossed the capital carrying 28 lakh people daily, as of today.  The FD’s affidavit in 2015 called the DMRC network a “prestigious project”, envisaged for the overall benefit of citizens of the country and the city. Yet, the expansion of the 218-km Metro network comes at an expense of 55,572 trees that were torn down.

During the hearing on the case, the HC had observed that the notified green cover in Delhi, which was supposed to be 30 per cent, had fallen to 10.2 per cent in 2009. Nowhere is this decrease in green cover more apparent than the stretch between Chhatarpur and HUDA City Centre Metro stations. Environmentalists point out that the area, once connected to the southern ridge, saw deforestation between 2005 and 2010, when the Yellow Line was being constructed.

Inevitably, in a city where infrastructure projects are straining to keep up with the population boom, projects clash and confusion prevails.

A senior forest department official told The Indian Express, “A combination of Metro construction and the resultant development led to an increase in deforestation in the area. In fact, old residents will tell you that the area south of the existing Sultanpur Metro station was once a Nilgai habitat connected to the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.”

In 2015, the FD indicated to the Delhi High Court that it “allowed felling of approximately 46,529 trees” to DMRC between 2003-04 and 2014-15 under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA), 1994. But the plan was to make up for that by planting “about 10 times, equalling to about 5 lakh seedlings”.

The DMRC did the needful, releasing Rs 70.6 crore towards compensatory plantation. But unlike other government agencies in the capital, DMRC, which fells trees as it expands, doesn’t have a dedicated department to plant new ones. “DMRC is mandated to run the transportation system. Creating a horticulture department is not necessitated,” said a DMRC spokesperson.

The responsibility of planting, then, falls on the perennially short-staffed and beleaguered FD. The Metro, explains the affidavit, is a “central sector project” with its own rules. “The Forest Department has expertise on creation of plantation, and the compensatory plantation raised for DMRC is growing very well,” the spokesperson told The Indian Express.

“But this was not always the case,” pointed out environmental lawyer Aditya Prasad. “Initially, all departments were created equal.” He flagged an internal audit by the Delhi government that showed that between 2003 and 2006, the DMRC was pulled up for falling short of planting 5,271 trees as compensation.

That was then. The DMRC now maintains they no longer have “any say” in the matter. “Yes, DMRC provides funds for compensatory plantation only. It does not have any say in this matter. Few land pockets have also been facilitated by DMRC to the Forest Department,” a DMRC spokesperson said.

The result, the DMRC spokesperson admits, is that the agency — dedicated to encouraging Delhi to leave behind private vehicles and use the public transport to ease pollution — “does not check on the plantation”. The DMRC is not “mandated” to do so, the spokesperson said, adding that it is the responsibility of the FD’s “tree officer”.

Inevitably, in a city where infrastructure projects are straining to keep up with the population boom, projects clash and confusion prevails. Take, for instance, the case of 9,200 seedlings of Shisham, Pipal, Alstonia and Pilkhan that were planted, only to be felled again for a road-widening project, according to the affidavit. “The 9,200 seedlings mentioned in North FD have been again cut/felled as permission was granted to the Public Works Department for widening of Wazirabad to Mukarba Chowk,” it said.

Apart from the NH1, the Forest Department claims to have planted over five lakh saplings — 3,77,601 as compensation for Phase I and II of the Metro network, and 1,23,013 for Phase III, including the ones at Tilpat Valley. The total saplings planted is key, since DMRC had been asked to plant at least 5 lakh saplings. According to the FD’s own claims, this has been spread over 350 hectares, with a survival rate between 65 and 100 per cent, mostly veering towards the higher side.

Experts, however, find this hard to believe. “Assuming, in a hectare, you can plant a thousand saplings, and that is only possible if the area has no trees to begin with. That would imply 500 hectares should have come under compensatory plantation,” said Vivek Vyas, deputy programme manager (forestry), Centre for Science and Environment.

Further, the forest department’s near-perfect claim of “survival rates” is also questionable, he argued. “Delhi is a semi-arid region which has dry, deciduous forest. So, the survival rate in such a dryland ecosystem for any plantation will only be 20-30 per cent,” said Vyas. “In urban areas, the case of human interference is much more. The plantation can be affected by climate, sunlight and nilgais.”

Missing steps
The only way to ensure better survival rates of young saplings, Vyas maintained, were three options, all revolving around increased monitoring — proper fencing and patrolling, restricted zones for trees and involving the community to guard trees.

The forest department does none of these. According to a senior forest department official, who did not wish to be named, “monitoring and evaluation” is rarely done on a regular basis and that the focus is on newer plantations. “Monitoring and evaluation of plantations is done only in October each year after monsoon. Unless something unrealistic happens, such as a fire or damage due to some reason, we let the trees grow as it is since it takes five-six years. I have not visited any of the plantations (that came up for the Metro) for a while since we are busy with new creations. It’s the rainy season and we focus on new plantations during this time,” the official said.

Even the plantations where trees survive are not necessarily beneficial for Delhi’s ecology. Environmentalist Pradip Krishen recalled a time when the FD invited him to take part in a plantation drive at Asola Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Several years ago, I was invited to the sanctuary, where school children were going to plant saplings,” he said. “Of the 20 species of saplings that were readied for plantation, not a single one was native to that ecology,” Krishen said, adding he left the event because of that. “The Forest Department is notorious for not knowing what are native species.”

In Krishen’s opinion, compensatory plantation efforts are done in a “naam ke vaaste” manner. “The compensatory afforestation law is on paper. People, including the Forest Department, are just evading it. Officials do not go check on the plantation and they do not bother to educate themselves either,” he said. “Characteristics of forests change all the time, which means it is important for forest officials to visit plantations regularly. But in Delhi, the FD really does not understand what its role is.”

Short on manpower
On Friday, the Delhi Metro held a function at Metro Bhawan to announce it was the “world’s first ever Metro system to get green certification for all its major buildings and installations”. But Krishen pointed out: “From a civic management point of view, you can see that they (Delhi Metro) are in a hurry… Engineers may take a minute to ponder if they find a temple or a masjid in the way of a project. But a tree is just a stupid impediment that can be easily bulldozed.”

Prasad, the lawyer who often represents Delhi’s trees in court, pointed out that the capital does not have commercial forestry. “This means there is massive demand for wood,” he said. “In Delhi, every tree is protected under the DPTA. So, when you apply to cut trees to the Forest Department, the wood has to go to a civic body-run crematorium in the city.” But in the case of Delhi Metro and other agencies, the wood also gets auctioned. “The Metro will give the responsibility to a contractor, who will come cut the trees and take the wood.”

Before the Delhi High Court in March 2017, the Delhi government said that some timber is auctioned off and some provided free of cost to crematoriums. In turn, the court ordered a CAG audit stating that “it was necessary to know what happens to the funds received from auction of timber”. The Delhi Metro did not comment on questions by The Indian Express on how DMRC disposes of the wood and whether it is auctioned.

Prasad also flagged the staff crunch in the Forest Department. “The internal audit reports have over the years found severe shortage in compensatory plantations, in some cases no record of it, or poor survivability of plantations,” he said. “The real reason is that the Forest Department has no staff. Or the staffers are poorly equipped to monitor tree felling and plantations.”

Staff crunch, a FD staffer in his forties said, is the reason for the overgrown plantation at Shastri Park in north Delhi, which he looks after. “The contract to employ labourers ended and it’s up to the higher ups to put down a fresh tender,” he said. The staffer walked through a narrow mud track lined with water packets and broken alcohol bottles, with grasshoppers scuttling out of his way. “The locals come here to drink at night after I lock up and go home,” he said.

He explained the area was divided into two parts: the first eight hectares came under compensatory plantation under CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority), which is when trees are felled from Delhi’s protected areas, and the next 10 hectares come under DPTA.

“DPTA ka matlab mujhe nahin pata,” he admitted, taking out his phone to call a forest department official. “Sir, DPTA ka matlab?” the staffer asked over the phone. “Arre sir ko bhi nahi pata,” he said, hanging up.

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