Trees vs ‘development’ in Delhi

Why do thousands of trees in the heart of polluted, dust-choked Delhi have to be cut?

Written by Mallica Joshi | New Delhi | Updated: June 26, 2018 8:07:58 am
How many trees are being felled in Delhi, where, and why? Trees felled in New Delhi Monday. Amit Mehra

How many trees are being felled in Delhi, where, and why?

Buildings in seven residential colonies cutting a swathe from south-central to south-east Delhi — Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Mohammadpur, Kasturba Nagar, Sriniwaspuri, and Tyagaraj Nagar — where central government employees live, are in poor condition, and will be redeveloped by state-owned builder NBCC Ltd and the Government of India’s Central Public Works Department (CPWD). The number of flats over the 500-acre project area will nearly double from 12,970 to 25,667, and a large commercial centre called the World Trade Centre will come up in Nauroji Nagar.

The project will require around 14,000 trees to be cut, according to fresh estimates. Permission has been given to cut 3,780 trees; the rest are in process. Most of the trees have to go so that underground parking space for 70,000 vehicles can be created, NBCC chairperson A K Mittal has said. So far, 1,100 trees in Nauroji Nagar and close to a 100 in Netaji Nagar have been cut. Delhi High Court Monday directed NBCC and CPWD to cut no more trees until July 4, the next date of hearing.

When was the plan to cut the trees cleared, and by whom?

The permission to cut trees in Nauroji Nagar, in November 2017, and Netaji Nagar, in May 2018, was granted by the Lieutenant Governor after endorsement by the Delhi Environment Department, the L-G’s office claimed Monday. The Delhi Environment Minister had raised concerns over the large number of trees being cut and had suggested they be transplanted, but had not refused permission for the felling. NBCC has already paid the Forest Department close to Rs 23 crore for compensatory plantation.

Read | Can Delhi afford to cut down so many trees for housing project, HC asks NBCC

Permission to cut trees in the other colonies, too, was sought, but has not been granted. The largest number of trees that NBCC had sought permission to cut was in Sarojini Nagar — 11,000. After the Forest Department said no, NBCC asked to cut 606 trees in “phase 1”. But in the absence of a clear compensatory plantation plan, this, too, was refused. The latest proposed figure for all of Sarojini Nagar is over 8,000 trees; the NBCC chief, however, has said this is not the final proposal.

To cut trees in an area larger than a hectare (10,000 sq m), the L-G’s word is final. However, he does not sign off on any project that has not been endorsed by the Delhi Environment Minister, his office said in Monday’s statement.
In September 2017, the National Green Tribunal had directed NBCC to plant trees before they cut any. In a press conference Monday, Mittal said 250 trees had been planted in Nauroji Nagar for the 1,100 that had been cut. He gave no plantation figure for Netaji Nagar.

Express Editorial | A spreading green

Could these areas have been redeveloped without cutting their trees?

No — if the parking area is to be built the way it has been planned as of now. NBCC has earlier built around trees, in one case even including it in the design. While building New Moti Nagar, it had been given permission to cut 62 trees, but it managed to save 33. In New Moti Nagar, peepal, date and ashok trees stand in the middle of roads, with reflective markings. In East Kidwai Nagar, which too, is being redeveloped by NBCC, 1,852 trees were cut. However, NBCC has said it also saved more than 30% of full-grown trees, some of which were transplanted in the same area.

Could the new living quarters for government employees have been built elsewhere in the capital?

Activists have criticised the central and Delhi governments for starting such a massive project in the heart of Delhi, a city already reeling under dust and vehicular pollution. Anil Sood, who has moved the NGT, said, “How will the increased demand for water and electricity in these areas be fulfilled? What about the increased traffic congestion because of the commercial centre?”

Read | What’s replacing Delhi’s felled trees? Many non-native species with little ecological value

Many have said the new quarters could have been built in Rohini, Dwarka, Narela or Bawana in the city’s west and northwest. The first two are connected by the Metro, whose phase IV will connect the other two as well. Experts say these areas do not have dense green cover, and building there would not have resulted in mass tree-felling. It would also lead to better development of these areas in terms of connectivity, green cover, and commercial complexes.

However, no one seems to have a clear answer to the question of what would then happen to the crumbling colonies of south Delhi.

How successful are transplantation and compensatory plantation?

As per rules, for every tree cut, 10 have to planted as compensation, preferably on site. Since such large areas are not available at the same site, these are planted at vacant plots, usually on the outskirts of the city. Transplanting trees is not always successful. Full grown trees are vulnerable to shock once they are removed, and require great care in transportation and after being transplanted.

Read | Delhi: Will plant 2 lakh trees in return, says NBCC

Compensatory plantation, too, is not always successful. Internal audits of the Forest Department show that a survival rate of 30% for these trees is considered good; in many cases, barely 10% survive. “The concept of compensatory plantation is fundamentally flawed. The land usually has poor-quality soil — the reason why it is vacant in the first place. And the agencies are only interested in meeting targets,” Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, said.

The agencies also lean towards planting fast-growing ornamental plants that often don’t have a large canopy, which is needed to combat air pollution. In many cases, saplings of native Delhi trees are not available in nurseries. For the redevelopment of the Ridge, which has been overrun by the non-native vilayati kikar, plants are being sourced from Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

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