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Saturday, September 19, 2020

‘In a new capital, the work we do will tell what we believe in’

Naturalist Vijay Dhasmana speaks about the replanting strategies for the Central Vista Redevelopment project, what the lack of trees will do Delhi's pollution and why urban forests are the way ahead

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi | July 22, 2020 9:40:36 pm
Vijay Dhasmana, ecologist, Central Vista Redevelopment project, delhi's pollution, urban forests, indian express lifestyle, indian express news “I can only re-emphasise that habitat creation is the future of landscaping,” says Vijay Dhasmana. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

A recent report on the Central Vista Redevelopment said that HCP Design, Planning and Management, the government’s consultant for the project, had plans for a replanting strategy for trees in the vicinity. We speak to ecologist Vijay Dhasmana — who, with his team, rewilded the Aravali Biodiversity Park, Gurugram — on the tree walks he’s conducted in the Central Vista, his findings and creating urban ecologies. Excerpts:

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You have been tree mapping around Central Vista for many months before the lockdown. Were there any interactions with government bodies to put forward a planting plan?

Our first effort was to collect data on species of the planting, their girth and canopies. We thought that once our study is complete, we could talk to government agencies, but then CAA-NRC protests happened and the area was out of bounds, followed by Covid-19 restrictions. However, we were able to map the flora in and around India Gate and some of the estates such as IGNCA. As far as the recent report on the age of trees is concerned, it is not an easy area to venture into. Most of the techniques of finding age are invasive. What we found during our walks is that most of the trees we measured were mature, some were showing signs of aging and some were dying too. But largely they were in good health.

In a 3D superimposed image of the CV Redevelopment plan, it was seen that the project would need to cut a minimum of 2,000 trees to get it off the ground. You have mentioned previously how this massive felling would deprive Delhi of oxygen. Can you elaborate on the math for us?

Our collective research showed that each tree produces about 118 kg of oxygen a year. So, if about 2,000 trees are removed, that would be denying Delhi 2.36 lakh kg of oxygen, which would provide for 4,000 adults. Even as the designs of the redevelopment keeps changing, we did some guess work. In IGNCA, if we go by the proposed new buildings, it will be at the cost of 192-odd young and mature trees. Its beautiful diverse habitat will be lost. There are several large trees of semal, jamun, amaltash, peepal and goolar, and many others that may be axed. These large trees host a lot of wildlife, including roosting sites for migrating species of birds.

But then, these are guesstimates, because of the lack of trees data and design ambiguity. Even CPWD does not have comprehensive data on existing plants.

Delhi being one of the most polluted cities in the world, this is the last thing that we would want – to remove our carbon sink and pollution sinks and create concrete structures with huge basements that removes the possibility of growing large trees again.

The trees of Central Vista are as much heritage value as the structures around them.

Absolutely. Every development is an opportunity to make a statement. And with this redevelopment proposal, it’s as if we’re saying we don’t care about our ecology, our habitat, heritage or our native trees. The modern thought about development is directed towards creating urban ecologies, and there’s no talk of that currently in the present proposal. Trees have cultural significance in our country, many festivals are celebrated around flowering, be it the amaltash or the palash. Culture is a product of the environment after all. Our poets, be it Tagore or Khusrau, have written about it. Everything is deeply connected; it cannot be seen in isolation.

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A recent report spoke of the replanting strategy in the CV Redevelopment which will ‘in principle’ bring back the original design by Lutyens. It mentions that there are primarily only three species – Peepal, Banyan, Wild Ficus. And that the jamun trees planted there are nearly 100 years old. Do trees come with expiry dates?

Well, different trees respond differently to the environment they are in. And, again unfortunately, there are not enough studies to tell us conclusively how long a particular tree lives for. We can say how old a particular tree is by counting its rings but am not sure of life expectancy of most of our trees. Then how do you deal with your old trees, replace them, cut-copy-paste? Unfortunately, this is lame thinking to say that you will replace old plants, which are not dying yet, with new ones. Also, the jamuns and the bahedas were contracted out to supply the city with its fruits. It supported our rural economy as well.

Do you think there can be another way to envision the landscaping of India’s most prominent public space? Especially given we’re talking about literally rebuilding a new capital.

In a new capital, the work we do, the impressions we create, will tell what we believe in. I think cities and capitals have to be rethought when looking at landscaping. This is an age of integration. We have realised that wildlife and wild habitats cannot exist if we don’t build relationships with humans. And there is enough wilderness in the Central Vista area. Urban ecologies and urban forests are the future. We have to do away with this grandiose avenues and lawn model of design. It is not water, energy or ecologically efficient. We have to give way to the new thought of creating habitats. I can imagine the whole Central Vista and estates as a sanctuary, where we have buildings, museums, and open spaces that welcome birds, animals and people, equitably.

As a naturalist, how do you advise we ought to see trees not just as decoration but as being meaningful participants in the making of a city?

I can only re-emphasise that habitat creation is the future of landscaping. We have no choice, unless we want to decimate the remaining wildlife and birdlife. We humans have deep roots in the wild, we get nurtured in wilderness. So, firstly don’t think of trees as islands, they are part of a larger system. There are trees, shrubs, climbers, epiphytes (that grow on them), herbs and grasses and there are millions of years of relationship with microbes, insects, birds and animals. So, start visualising the picture in totality, not just as trees. They may appear as features of landscapes like pergolas or installation, but they are more than that. They have associations, they have companions, they have relationships and our present-day landscaping ignores it completely. There is enough growing consensus in the scientific community that trees are not islands and are social beings. So, respect that.

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