Mute victims of urban development
The authorities’ blatant disregard to protecting the environment outraged Delhi’s citizens in June – they took to the streets in large numbers opposing the government’s decision of mindless urban development.
Sometime in the middle of June, a certain newspaper report had sent tremors across the national capital. Thousands of people took to the streets, the legislature held high-level meetings and the judiciary was flooded with petitions. Delhi, being the capital of India, has witnessed many protests before and after Independence. Nevertheless, citizens protesting with not only placards but by also hugging trees were considerably rare even for this city. The protests, named "Chipko Movement", were against the cutting of 17,000 trees in South Delhi, proposed for allowing the central government's redevelopment projects.
The Burning Issue
Union Government employees are housed in South Delhi at quarters provided by the government. Recently, the government took the decision to redevelop seven such residential colonies where the employees stay. The places included Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Mohammadpur, Kasturba Nagar, Sriniwaspuri and Tyagaraj Nagar. The Government of India's Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and NBCC Ltd were assigned the responsibility of building the new flats across over 500-acres. Alongside, they were also asked to build a large commercial centre called the World Trade Centre at 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," said NBCC chairperson AK Mitta in a press statement.
In July 2016, the Union Cabinet had approved the redevelopment of seven residential colonies to expand government housing facilities and create commercial infrastructure in New Delhi.
The available reports noted that there were 19,978 trees standing on the seven sites, with the maximum in Sarojini Nagar – 13,128. Of these, 16,573 trees were proposed to be cut down, while the rest were to stay on site or "relocated". However, the felling of trees in the city is subject to the approval of the Delhi forest department.
"On November 11, 2017, the state environment and forests secretary, on the direction of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, the head of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, granted the approval for tree felling in Nauroji Nagar. Similar approval was given to the Netaji Nagar project on April 23, 2018," observed activist Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon in an article.
They further wrote, "The powers of the Lieutenant Governor are drawn from the Transaction of Business of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Rules, 1993, which have been at the centre of the tussle between the Aam Aadmi Party, which is in power in Delhi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre." According to Kohli and Menon, this implies that the approvals for tree felling may be a "shared responsibility" between the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, headed by the Lieutenant Governor, and the administration run by the Aam Aadmi Party.
Political blame game
As soon as the matter of "shared responsibility" came forward, the politics of blame erupted. The AAP rejected all blame of assuring such permission and said that the LG was the one with the approving nod.
Meanwhile, Delhi forest minister Imran Hussain wrote to Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, urging him to "immediately stop" the further felling of trees in the areas that are undergoing construction work for the Centre's plan to redevelop government colonies, until the entire project is investigated.
"In view of the seriousness of the matter and the fact that the felling of trees may cause permanent loss, it is proposed that an immediate stoppage on further felling of trees in the GPRA (General Pool Residential Accommodation) colonies may be ordered till the issues are resolved," Hussain said in his letter.
No trees can be cut at least till July 19 for the controversial project in Delhi, said the national green court. The Delhi High Court too had put on hold the housing project that requires the cutting of about 17,000 trees to clear the way for the homes of government employees besides establishing a commercial complex.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), to maintain the status quo of not felling trees for the redevelopment of seven South Delhi colonies until further orders.
The government-owned real estate development body NBCC said that it has directed all its contractors to not cut trees in any of its redevelopment projects in South Delhi, in line with the undertaking it has submitted to the Delhi High Court. The body had, on June 25, agreed in the High Court to not cut trees till July 4. It made the statement after a vacation bench of the court, comprising Justices Vinod Goel and Rekha Palli, said that it would impose an interim stay on tree felling.
No trees would be cut in the process of redevelopment of seven colonies in South Delhi, said Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, as he also assured that the national capital's green cover would not be "damaged" and, instead, steps would be taken to enhance it.
The housing and urban affairs minister said the agencies – the NBCC and the CPWD – entrusted to executing the redevelopment project have been asked to rework and redesign the plans to avoid the felling of trees.
"I have always maintained that the green cover in Delhi will not be damaged & steps will be taken to enhance it even further. As stated earlier, no trees will henceforth be cut in the process of redevelopment of Delhi colonies," Puri said in a tweet.
Victims of whims
This was not the only project where such a huge number of trees were cut. A project in Pragati Maidan led to the felling of nearly 1,800 trees. The different national highway projects around Delhi have seen the death of over 5,000 trees. The metro construction works caused damage of more than 10,000 trees across the Capital for years.
This time, the citizens won their battle by adequately pressurising the concerned authorities. The citizens – without any flags, slogans, affiliations or claims to power – came out in unforeseen numbers to save their city and its precious trees.
India has various laws regarding the felling of trees. If one tree is cut, then 10 new saplings should be planted, the rule clearly states. But, can one full-grown tree be supplemented with 10 saplings? The question has been raised by activists and the answer is an unambiguous no.
Moving beyond the politics of enforcing such a huge project that would severely damage the city and its environment, the government should start thinking of methods to improve our country's urban landscape. If urban development occurs only at the cost of hampering nature, we will make ourselves more vulnerable to natural calamities, allow increasing pollution levels and experience far more instances of deteriorating health ailments.