Delhi's tree cover losing battle to shoddy reports on environment, poor compliance of afforestation norms

Throughout the summer of 2018, Delhi's air has been dust: grainy and brown. Last week, lieutenant-governor Anil Baijal directed government agencies and municipal corporations to enforce dust control measures at construction sites and carry out water sprinkling along with mechanised sweeping of roads. On 15 June, PM10 levels — the presence of particulate matter with diameter less than 10 millimetres — was beyond 'severe' at 796 in the Delhi-National Capital Region and 830 in Delhi. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had also convened an urgent meeting of the special task force to discuss the implementation of the Graded Response Action Plan.

A green cover can help reduce dust, smoke and fine particulate matter in the air through absorption, detoxification and metabolisation, and yet, protesters have been forced to hold up boards and plead with the government to stop the Forest Department of Delhi from felling 16,500 trees in the city's central and southern areas.

Something in this cycle of reason seems to be amiss and in need of immediate course correction. The High Court of Delhi on Monday made strong observations against such large-scale felling of trees, and the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) agreed to not cut any trees till the next hearing scheduled for 2 July. But this may only be a stopgap arrangement.

Here's how the story goes: On the direction of the lieutenant-governor, AK Singh, the secretary for environment and forests, passed a notification on 23 April "in public interest", exempting 44.24 hectares for construction for the redevelopment of General Pool Residential Accommodation (GPRA) colony in Delhi's Netaji Nagar. The notice mentioned that there are 3,906 trees in the project site, and the number of trees felled would be 2,294, and compensatory plantation would be 24,500 trees.

Singh passed the order exercising the powers conferred to the government by Section 29 of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994. The notification read that the applicant, NBCC Delhi, shall make a security deposit of Rs 14.19 crore to ensure compensatory plantation for seven years.

A similar order — a copy of which is with Firstpost — was passed on 15 November, 2017, and signed by the then environment and forests secretary Keshav Chandra for the redevelopment of Nauroji Nagar by the NBCC. In this case, 1,454 trees were to be cut down; compensatory afforestation was set at 14,650 trees; and the NBCC had to pay Rs 8.35 crore as security deposit. The NBCC’s project report on the redevelopment of the GPRA Colony in Sarojini Nagar says that there are still around 13,128 trees at the site, 11,000 trees will be felled for the demolition, and 2,128 trees will be retained. "However, the large-scale landscaping planned and suggested in the master plan for the project would compensate for this loss," the report said.

The order signed by AK Singh, secretary of environment and forests, granting approval to the NBCC to fell trees and stating a sum to be deposited for compensatory afforestation.

The order signed by AK Singh, secretary of environment and forests, granting approval to the NBCC to fell trees and stating a sum to be deposited for compensatory afforestation.

"While the colonies near South Delhi require a facelift, the clause of 'compensatory afforestation' must be analysed in the context of urban redevelopment projects," said Vimlendu Jha, a Delhi-based environmentalist and social entrepreneur who participated in the citizen-led campaign Save Delhi SOS. "The trees that are being felled are nearly 60 years old. This is oxygen supply for five people. Now, if 10 saplings are planted like 30 kilometres away, how will it fix the ecological disturbance caused to the area."

The idea of compensatory afforestation, which essentially means planting trees to compensate for undertaking an activity that leads to deforestation, has its roots in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Juhi Saklani, who was part of the core group of environment enthusiasts behind the campaign to save Delhi's trees, said that the only response that forest department officials gave her when questioned about compensatory plantations was that they were waiting for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to approve land to plant the saplings. For instance, she claimed she was informed that the DDA has approved land for compensatory plantations for the trees cut down in Netaji Nagar. The Compensatory Afforestation Bill, 2016, provides for the transfer of 90 percent of the accumulated amount, which presently stands at Rs 40,000 crore to states, to ensure that felling activities are compensated for and execute other activities to conserve, protect, improve and expand the forest and wildlife resources of India.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the state-owned NBCC and the Ministry of Urban Development on the redevelopment of the GPRA colonies in Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar. The agreement states that large, dense trees at 3 centimetres will be planted in a 6- to 9-metre wide green buffer zone that will be developed along the boundary wall. It adds that all existing trees may be preserved and replanted on the periphery to act as noise barriers.

While this sounds perfect on paper, Saklani, who has been making frequent trips to the redevelopment project underway in East Kidwai Nagar, has a different story to share. "There are banyan, peepal, neem, mango, amaltas, guava and jambul trees in these old colonies," she said. "There's an eco-system of cross pollination and birds that goes beyond oxygen. Now, what I've seen in East Kidwai Nagar is that ornamental palms are being planted within the complex and hard ficus (a species of fig) is being planted along the boundary walls. The ecology goes beyond numeric and cosmetic replacements, and diversity that's lost is hardly compensated for easily."

A building in East Kidwai Nagar, where ornamental palms have been planted in place of old banyan and peepal trees. Image Courtesy: Juhi Saklani.

A building in East Kidwai Nagar, where ornamental palms have been planted in place of old banyan and peepal trees. Image Courtesy: Juhi Saklani.

Kanchi Kohli, who works as a policy analyst for the Centre for Policy Research, said that a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on non-public undertakings in Delhi released in March 2017 had quoted a 67 percent shortfall in compensatory plantations in the city. It had mentioned that the NBCC had obtained permission to fell 1,123 trees from 2014 to 2017 for the East Kidwai Nagar Project on a security deposit of Rs 4.51 crore. The deputy conservator of forests (south) had granted this permission, but the division did not undertake any compensatory tree plantations between 2014 and 2017. Also, the NBCC had planted 1,354 trees against the required 8,165 trees. There was no evidence in the files of the Forest Department to show whether it had ensured that the NBCC took up the afforestation.

"Aside from this, one should also take note that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had passed an order in September 2017 that planting should precede the felling," Kohli added. "Today, environment activists taking to the streets want the Forest Department and the NBCC to prove their compliance with the order."

A screengrab of the CAG report dated 31 March, 2017, which highlights a shortfall in compensatory plantations in Delhi.

A screengrab of the CAG report dated 31 March, 2017, which highlights a shortfall in compensatory plantations in Delhi.

The other critical aspect is that of the environment assessment report the NBCC, or any organisation undertaking redevelopment, is required to share with the central government. "The impact assessment report in this case was submitted in three months' time, and it does not quantify the impact," environmentalist Jha explained. "For instance, there should be a clause on how the felling impacts groundwater recharge."

Last September, the NGT had said that Delhi is "over exploited" in terms of groundwater and had asked local authorities to state how they proposed to deal with the problem of declining water levels in the capital.

"Companies are hired to compile these environment assessment reports, and there are questions like, 'Is there going to be change in land use,' to which the answer is 'no,'" Saklani explained. "Unless the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change starts asking more specific questions, like whether the new trees that will be planted will be narrower or regarding the species of trees being planted, the environment assessment procedure will remain superficial."

Kush Sethi, a postgraduate in green chemistry who works on saving Delhi's ecology, organises walks into the heart of Delhi's wilderness to give people a glimpse of the ecological diversity that is dying at the hands of deforestation. He was part of the recent protests, as well. Sethi said that the problem was with the way the trees were cut down from the centre of the green cover in a manner that does not make it easily noticeable. To prove that tiny saplings of ornamental plants cannot compensate for the loss of green cover, he tweeted satellite images that show a decline in forest cover from 2012 to 2017:

Members of the Aam Aadmi Party pledged support towards the civil society-led protest after Dr Kaushal Kant Mishra, a doctor with the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, filed a writ petition against the felling of nearly 20,000 trees in the name of redevelopment. However. the organisers of the protests said they would prefer to keep the campaign strictly apolitical because up until the matter got national media coverage, no party displayed any will towards resolving the environmental crisis.


Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 17:46 PM

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