When things reach an edge Delhi’s civil society comes together to rally and protest for public causes. In 2011 the rampant corruption in the Manmohan Singh government threw up a Gandhian Anna Hazare who was agitating in Maharashtra for years against local corruption and then came to Delhi with support of various civil society leaders. He evoked tremendous response in his protracted agitation, including a prolonged fast, supported by unorganized members of public, forced the government to assure that his main demand of creation of a Lok Pal would soon be met by suitable legislative action. That, however, turned out to be ruse as a Lok Pal is yet to be appointed. The movement, however, gave birth to Aam Aadmi Party which has been ruling in Delhi with a rather scratchy performance for around four years.
Again in December 2012 when “Nirbhaya”, a young girl, a physiotherapy intern, was brutally raped and physically abused by the staff of a commuter bus which eventually led to her untimely death the civil society of Delhi again rallied round for greater safety of women on Delhi streets. It forced the government to enact a series of stringent anti-rape laws. The laws may not have reduced the incidence of rapes but the civil society’s rallies and demands in unison sensitized the administrations of the entire country against such horrendous crimes against women. On account of that unrelenting movement the accused in the Nirbhaya case have since been awarded death penalty.
Now once more, as the wellbeing of people of Delhi has been threatened by the proposal to cut down as many as 14000 trees for the so-called re-development of quite a few South Delhi residential colonies, including Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar, they came out in strength to strongly protest against the decision of the government. The protests were so strong, especially because of the rising pollution and temperature in Delhi that the government had to back off. The court and the National Green Tribunal, where the matter had been taken, imposed a stay on further cutting down of trees. The Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs ordered that no tree would be cut and asked for redesign of re-development plans of the long-established colonies. Such is the power of the civil society when it chooses to rise in protest. One wonders what kind of planners have been engaged who seem to have been oblivious of the current extremely high level of pollution in the city and have suggested felling of as many as 14000 trees existing in these colonies for decades. This after the Delhi Forest Department indiscriminately allowed massive tree-felling in Delhi.
Something obviously is wrong with the Forest Department of Delhi Administration. Reports indicate that in the last seven years it has given permission to fell more than 44000 trees and now it had again permitted felling of as many as 14000 trees for the so-called redevelopment of South Delhi colonies. The officers of the Department seem to have lost all sense of proportion. Whenever proposals are sent to it for felling of large number of trees they impose only token cuts allowing large-scale felling. They have displayed utter apathy towards the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Delhi and their environment. One imagines their mechanical way of functioning, unless checked, will convert Delhi into a desert in not too distant future. Besides, the City is already highly polluted with PM-10 and PM 2.5 levels way beyond normal. Such massive tree-felling operations will greatly enhance atmospheric pollution. The City’s citizens are already choking and with so many trees gone they would be exposed to untold health hazards.
It seems, none ever pays attention to the welfare of the citizens – neither the government environmental conservation agencies nor the bureaucrats or city planners. They are only interested in building concrete jungles replacing all greenery. Their argument that compensatory plantation will be carried out has proven to be only a ruse. Besides, saplings cannot be substituted for full grown decades-old tall trees with widely spread–out canopies. It is only the canopies which intercept the particulates and also provide shade to the commuters walking on the hot asphalt in summers.
In accordance with rules, for every tree cut down ten need to be planted. Often so much of land is not available in and around the site of the cut-down tree. The compensatory plantation is thus carried out wherever land is available which is generally in the outskirts of the city. This does not help in any way the localities where mass-scale tree-felling is undertaken. Besides, authorities often do not plant native trees; they go in for decorative or ornamental trees which are of little help in conserving the environment. Compensatory plantation is actually perpetration of a fraud on the people. A rate of survival of 30% of planted trees is considered good but generally only 10% survive. Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, a strenuous study conducted by him, says “the concept of compensatory plantation is fundamentally flawed. The land has poor quality soil – the reason why it is vacant in the first place. And the agencies are interested only in meeting targets.” The forest departments’ business is to protect forests and trees. They do not pursue compensatory plantation with due diligence and yet they indulge in large-scale felling of trees.
Translocation of trees, a practice that is being bandied about, is also not very successful. The success ratio has been poor in trans-locating fully grown trees with their entire ecosystems of parasites, insects and animals mainly because of lack of adaptability in many accompanying organisms and unfamiliar as well as strange, sometimes even hostile, ecosystems of the new surroundings. Besides, removal of a fully grown tree from its moorings inflicts a severe shock on it which alone sometimes is cause of its end.
Though already a few thousand trees have been felled in some of the ear-marked colonies yet Delhi’s environment has been saved for the time being. Now that the Minister concerned himself has taken matters in his own hands the redevelopment projects are likely to get drastically modified. Credit has to be given to the civil society of the city which did not take the decisions of the authorities lying down. They rose up in protest and forced the authorities to re-examine their decision.
Numerous other cities are not as lucky as their civil societies seldom rise against local decisions that hurt their interests. But in places like Bhopal severe protests by civil society forced the government to trash the builder-oriented City Development Plan 2005. Likewise, in 2015 widespread protests forced the government to change the site of the smart city as thousands o trees were to be felled destroying green ambiance of the city. Nonetheless, urban areas need to draw a lesson from Delhi and ensure that their health and wellbeing is given priority over the dreaded word “vikas” (development) and hence whenever there is a confrontation between the two they have to stand for their own interests. There can be no trade-off between development and environment.