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Issue 5
, 2007
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Death of reason defines decision of keeping trees out of Delhi's transport planning

Parvinder Singh
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2007

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?

a picture of the candle light vigil against tree felling 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. Trees for 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 media.

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 micro-environments.

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 corridor.

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 de-congest traffic.

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 alongside.markings on the tree that could kill

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 opinions across.