- Residents of New Delhi, India’s capital, have come out in protest against the proposed felling of more than 16,000 trees for a project to build housing for government officials.
- Many of these trees are decades old, and residents say that planting trees elsewhere in the form of compensatory afforestation will not make up for the loss of green cover in the heart of the city.
- Delhi is among the world’s most polluted cities, and the national capital regularly recording toxic air pollution levels is what’s driving Delhi’s residents to protest the tree felling.
Over the past few weeks, residents of New Delhi, India’s capital, have come out in protest at the proposed felling of thousands of trees for a development project.
The project involves clearing more than 16,500 trees in a low-density government housing area. Many of these trees are decades old, and the residents who have united against the tree felling say that planting trees elsewhere in the form of compensatory afforestation will not make up for the loss of green cover in the heart of the city.
Moreover, with the national capital regularly recording toxic air pollution levels over the past few years, Delhi’s residents have dug in their heels to stop the tree felling.
On July 2, India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT), which is tasked with ensuring the speedy disposal of environmental cases, directed that no more trees should be cut until July 19, the date of the next hearing. The Delhi High Court had earlier stopped the felling of trees until July 4.
The project in question involves the redevelopment of seven residential colonies for government officials. It aims to replace 12,970 existing and old government officers’ houses with more than 25,000 new units covering 2.91 square kilometers (1.12 square miles), and additional government office accommodation and other commercial complexes. The project is estimated to be completed in five years.
The total estimated bill for the project is 328.35 billion rupees ($4.8 billion) including maintenance and operation costs for 30 years. It received the green light from the cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2016, and subsequently secured the requisite environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Delhi’s ‘Chipko movement’
Prerna Prasad, who is part of the group organizing the citizens’ movement, said that while they are not against development, the “insane” cutting down of trees is not development.
“It was not an organized protest,” Prasad said. “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 organizations and individuals with similar environmental concerns. We got united and unity speaks.”
On June 24, Prasad, along with several hundred others, protested at Sarojini Nagar in south Delhi where about 11,000 trees are slated to be cut for the project.
Calling it Delhi’s “Chipko movement” — a flashback to a mass protest against the indiscriminate cutting of trees in the 1970s in India — the residents hugged the trees and tied green ribbons around their trunks, and chanted slogans against the government.
Though far from the original Chipko movement, the protest by Delhi’s residents is reminiscent of the earlier protests, which forced the government to rethink the cutting of trees in the Garhwal Himalayas. The real challenge for the protesters now will be to sustain the pressure on the government until it drops the project altogether, or proceeds without cutting the trees, especially the old ones.
In the Chipko movement of the early ’70s, village communities in Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh) united against a government decision allowing the cutting of hundreds of trees by a sports goods manufacturing company. The communities, especially women, hugged trees to prevent their being cut down, and their actions ultimately forced the government to retract.
In an even older movement, from back in the 1730s in the state of Rajasthan, dozens of people from the Bishnoi community sacrificed their lives to protect Khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) from being cut on the orders of the king of Jodhpur. The king ultimately passed an order preventing the cutting of trees in all Bishnoi villages.
A legal reprieve
In the current case, the Delhi High Court on June 25 ordered a cessation on the felling of trees until 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” a day earlier, Prasad told Mongabay-India at the time.
“They realize 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,” she said, adding that the protest was 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.”
The protesters have started a relay protest at the site to maintain the pressure and vowed to continue until they save every single tree.
Losing green cover in a polluted city
While hearing the petition, the high court questioned whether Delhi could afford such a massive loss of trees. The court’s question is significant as India’s capital 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 Organization released a report showing that India was home to 14 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of concentrations of tiny airborne pollutants known as PM2.5, which have been linked to high incidences of heart and lung diseases. In 2014 and 2016, too, WHO reports placed Delhi among the world’s most polluted cities.
These reports and other similar studies over the past few years have resulted in an intense debate in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) area, where toxic levels of air quality throughout the year have become a regular occurrence. This may have contributed to driving people out onto the streets to save the thousands of trees that serve as the lungs of a city that otherwise increasingly resembles a concrete jungle.
Anumita Roychowdhury, of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based environmental think tank, said that “there cannot be mindless tree cutting like this.” She said authorities had to balance the protection of trees with development, and that there was a need to find viable design solutions.
“This is where the design solutions come in … that the current tree grid can get reintegrated with the development design,” Roychowdhury said. “They need to focus on that first to ensure that the number of trees to be cut can be absolutely minimized. 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.”
Government on the defensive
Defending the proposed felling, the minister of state for housing and urban affairs said that for every tree cut, 10 would be planted. The ministry, known as the MoHUA, also said the redevelopment of the seven government colonies would increase the city’s green area coverage by about three times the existing green space.
The ministry said the redevelopment was being done with complete adherence to environmental sustainability and green building concepts, and special attention was being given to retaining the maximum number of existing trees and incorporating them in a large cluster as an integral part of the landscaping design scheme.
It said only 14,031 trees would be cut of the existing 21,040 trees. In all, 23,475 trees will be available in these colonies after the redevelopment, the ministry said. In addition, 135,460 trees will be planted to create an “urban forest.”
The NBCC, a public sector unit under the MoHUA and the organization executing the housing project, said on July 2 that the proposed redevelopment would give Delhi a green face-lift, with tree cover increasing by a factor of four.
“Utmost care is being taken to protect the environment while redeveloping General Pool Residential Accommodation (GPRA) colonies in the national capital to utilize 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.
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 noted an acute shortage of government housing in the Delhi-National Capital Region.
The MoU said the redevelopment of old colonies would not only replace the old dilapidated buildings with modern environmentally friendly houses, but also provide optimum utilization of land.
However, such assurances have failed to cut ice with those protesting against the move, as they point out that newly planted 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,” Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme. “So to assure people that all the number of trees that will be cut will be doubled or 10 times in the next 30-40 years is not convincing enough because there is evidence to prove otherwise.”
The citizens’ concerns regarding the efficacy of the compensatory afforestation are not ill-founded. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India found that of the more than 65,000 compensatory trees that the Delhi Forest Department was obliged to plant between 2014 and 2017, it planted only 21,000, or less than a third.
The tree-felling issue involves a fair amount of politicking between the national government and the state government of Delhi. Soon after the controversy broke, the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government was quick to point out that Delhi’s environment minister, Imran Hussain, had not given permission for the project. However, the national government said the project had the 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,” Hussain said.
Documents reviewed by the Mongabay-India showed that Hussain had objected to the cutting of large numbers of trees. In an official note earlier this year, he wrote that “the number of trees proposed to be cut is too large.” He 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.