The campaign to bring city trees back into
the discourse of transport and urban planning has grown stronger in the past
two months. Citizens and civil society organisations of Delhi have joined
forces on the specific issue of felling of hundreds of neighbourhood trees to
make way for the High Capacity Bus Corridor (HCBS). The fact that
the trees that people have lived around for decades and depended on them for
protection in this semi-arid area has outraged them.
The fact that close to 30,000 trees have
been axed in the past few years for moderninsing and decongesting transport in the National Capital Region seems too much to
be swallowed without any reasoning. The question that has been haunting
people, who are faced with these broad daylight murders and
mutilations in their neighbourhood, is whether any thought was given to the
trees while planning these projects.
Or how difficult is the decision to chop a tree?
Is anyone negotiating this life and death situation? Should these plans be
treated as the final word and a case of the death of imagination of experts in
finding innovative solutions?
Questions like these has got people together, not
against any particular project or mega plans, but against the death of reason.
The commonsense of the argument and support of promiment citizens moved
something, somewhere in the Government.
Delhi, a platform of individuals and
organisations, got invited to the Chief Minister's Office following a
candle-light vigil on a busy roadside and media uproar.
But in the backdrop of a growing support for the
trees, a parallel and much practiced discourse of development versus trees was
being whipped-up. Letters were sent out to prominent citizens by the Chief
Minister's Office, stating that the trees are being cut by a Government that
have green credentials and the damage to the green cover will be compensated
by planting sapling in city's outskirts.
But these messages did not even make even a
single mention of the neighbourhood trees, which is the core issue. There
wasn't even a pretence of addressing issues highlighted through a
signed by academics, experts,
students and housewives.
On 10th of April 2007, the
forum made a joint presentation with a plea to
Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit to protect the
neighbourhood trees by facilitating a mandatory and dedicate tree lane on the
roadside. They also presented a primary tree audit of the
first stretch of the HCBS project that showed that the ground situation was a
free play against trees. The trees on the ground were fewer than listed in the
official count. The ones that were to be saved had been cut. Branches from the
old trees were planted in the name of re-plantation and those that were still
standing were tarred and chocked.
The Chief Minister gave a patient hearing, but
had come prepared to stick to the line of steering clear of the main demand.
She said a dedicated tree line will not be granted. The issue of so-called
compensatory forestry was the peg. No matter what, the official position was
to equate these old native trees with sapling that would some day see the
light of the day.
A release was faxed by her media managers, even
as the meeting was being wrapped up, stating mostly the same things that she
had in response to the petition said. She directed a symbolic body of
NGOs and implementing agencies, named as the Tree Monitoring
Authority. The members returned to the project site barely 48-hours later and
this time had some officials to give then company under the summer sun to
assess the status of trees. The findings and the engagement once again
convinced them about the apathy towards trees. Follow-up meetings that were
promised by the Chief Minister have not happened till date, while the
defensive interpretation of Delhi's green cover are being churned out in the
Incidentally, despite all the coverage and
discussion, the issue of neighbourhood city trees is yet to be engaged with by
those implementing the project.
Questions have been raised on the lack of
transparency that marks the environmental aspect of the project. There is no
Environmental Impact Assessment available on the HCBS project.
But when you consider the fact that the agencies and experts involved do not
even know the role that neighbourhood trees play in an urban setting like
Delhi, it becomes easy to understand why they are talking about saplings as
forest and aggregate numbers as opposed to specific
A clichéd response that
government resorts to is that the trees that are being felled are absolutely
necessary. This is not convincing to those who have been following media
reports from the gorenment's side. Let's just take the example of
the project at hand, the first phase of the five phased 100-km dedicated bus
When the issue started gaining support and
public interest, an official statement was issued saying that of about 3,000
trees that were to felled in the first stretch only 1,800 will now be axed.
This was taken with a pinch of salt, considering that even a
botanical paradise that houses this city's tree history, the
Sundar Nursery, is being eyed for making a tunnel that will
However, this statement, and many such that are
being made in recent weeks, is a confession that uncovers the stark apathy
towards trees and thus the need to re-look at the whole issue. The planners,
in a single stroke of pen, can bring down the number of trees to be cut by
almost 50 per cent! This means trees could have been saved in the very first
place had they been part of the planning.
The issue of compensatory afforestation has
little relevance in the context of neighbourhood trees. By virtue of being in
the urban setting, these trees play a more immediate role, like shade,
blocking of dust, providing habitat to birds and small animals, keeping water
table stable and aesthetic relief. In other words, they allow people who are
not in air-conditioned vehicle to walk, cycle and wait for buses. A large
number of vendors depend on these for operation. Besides in an era of global
warming a large tree is sacred. How do you even compare a promised sapling
plantation with diverse native urban trees. Should we then expect all the
birds and small animals to wait or keep their lives on hold till plantations
can support them.
It is easy to draw from all this that the city
trees need an epistemic break so far as our transport plans are concerned. A
tree is a negotiable element and will continue to be so till trees are
integrated into plans and projects through a legislation. Campaigners have
been talking about a 2.5 meters of non-negotiable treeline. Make as many roads
and expansions as the agencies feel the city requires, but have a treeline
At the meeting with the Chief Minister, the
representatives made some significant recommendations for addressing the issue
of destruction of the neighbourhood trees. The key among these is that of a
dedicated corridor for trees. The recommendation reads: "A dedicated row/lane
or green belt of 3 metres width should be included in planning and
implementation. There should be rows of existing and planted native trees, on
both sides of the road. This tree row/lane must be protected and inviolate to
all inimical uses, like the dedicated lanes being proposed for cyclists,
buses, cars etc. This tree row/lane also ideally serve the needs of all road
users (especially pedestrians and cyclists) for shade and climate moderation.
Planning the cycle row behind the tree row will additionally provide a natural
protection between cyclists/pedestrians and motorized vehicles in the other
lanes. This row/lane/belt would also provide a critical buffer between busy
traffic and the adjoining homes areas, minimizing pollutants and noise. Hence
it will harmonize various critical considerations."
The image of a neighbourhood without trees
has spurred reactions in far greater forms and depth than our
urban planners would have expected. Two of India top academic institutions,
Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, have witnessed
sign-on campaigns by faculty members requesting their Vice Chancellors to
address the issue of cutting of trees and loss of green cover. Resident
Welfare Associations are thinking of ways to join forces and get their