Delhi-based Environmentalists spurred into action last month following reports of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) planning a segment of Mehrauli-Gurgaon line that would cut-through the Delhi-ridge forest area, believed to be one of the oldest geographical entities in the world.
Following some media focus, the issue was taken up for deliberation by the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC). The Committee suggested an inspection of the stretch by a select group of environmentalists.
Following is the test of submission made by them based on the inspect:
i. During the week of February 9, we inspected, on the suggestion of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), some of the areas proposed by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (DMRC) for its Metro rail alignment from Mehrauli to Gurgaon, along with DMRC officials. We had detailed meetings and site visits along with the DMRC officials.
ii. At the outset, we do appreciate the importance of the Metro as a mode of mass public transport that is beneficial for Delhi and surrounding areas and appreciate the need to cross over in some way the Delhi Ridge for the link joining Delhi to Gurgaon, which is the section under question in this case.
iii. Alongside it is important to emphasise that the Delhi Ridge and its forest, is the tail end of Aravalli hills - one of the oldest mountain system in the world and claimed to be over 2 billion years old. It is an irreplaceable natural heritage of the city and a prime reason for the location of the city at its location for over a thousand years, a fact borne out by the Quila Rai Pithora. In fact, the very ecological survival and character of Delhi, as a city, is dependent on this natural feature. It is thus of unparalleled importance that this heritage be protected, conserved and in fact rejuvenated to its original glory as far as possible.
iv. In current times, the Ridge has come under very severe threat, as land is scarce in the exploding city. As member of the Ridge Management Board as well as NGOs, we have been witness to constant proposals for alternate land uses on the Ridge at very close quarters. These proposals using the Ridge land for building malls, institutions, water tanks, transmission lines, access roads, hotels, petrol pumps, etc., all of which lay claim as important uses for the city. However it is a moot question, as what is more important – to see the city in a short few years development time frame or to vision it in the future and the role of the Ridge and its forest within that future. Certainly, the value of land on the Ridge forest is priceless, and any other use, no matter how pressing it may seem, cannot compensate or compete with the value of the Ridge as the ecological and water security of the city of Delhi. The Ridge is well regarded for its many critical values, notably as a bulwark against the desert, green lungs, climate moderator, groundwater recharge besides being a bird and wildlife habitat.
v. In the current situation, the location in question for the DMRC link, on the Ridge, is the last remnant of a ‘garland’ buffer zone between the city of Delhi and the adjoining areas of Gurgaon. It is well known that this has been protected only after severe resistance by the citizens of Delhi, and the side on Gurgaon is almost lost to new development. The importance of keeping this ‘garland’ untouched can hardly be overemphasised in the current pressures to commercialise and urbanise in Delhi and Gurgaon, a fact borne out by the new master plans of both areas.
vi. The Ridge, as per the Supreme Court of India, needs to be treated on par with the protection provided to National Parks and Sanctuaries. Accordingly any diversion of land on this for non-forest purposes needs not only the maximum care and deliberation, but also needs to be compensated at 5 per cent of the total project cost.
vii. The Metro track, as is proposed, emerges from the underground link near the Delhi Water Treatment Plant on the Ridge. From here it proceeds over ground on an increasing elevation towards the proposed Qutub Station, and from then on to the Chattarpur Station at Andheria Morh.
Keeping this in mind we would presently like to share the following recommendations:
1. Alignment, Underground, Overground track: After consulting with the DMRC we find that Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) norms indicate that construction for Metro must be placed 100 meters from a listed monument. The Metro was to go underground to a station near Qutub (300 meters from the Qutub) and then go overground along the divider of the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. This was a non- invasive solution that was rejected due the objection by the ASI, INTACH, etc that this would spoil the view of the Qutub. We feel that the objection of a view being hampered, though is very important, cannot take precedence over the preservation of the natural heritage of the city. As such, a solution to do that - could be to go back to the previous alignment.
2. The Metro track as is proposed, emerges from the underground link near the Delhi Water Treatment Plant on the Ridge. From here it proceeds overground on an increasing elevation towards the proposed Qutub Station (opposite Nehru Samaj Centre), and from then, it goes overground, at a distance of 20 meters from the road, till Mittal farmhouse, crosses and runs at 12 meters from the road on the other side and across Mahipalpur-Mehrauli road, on to the Chattarpur Station at Andheria Morh.
3. Keeping in view ASIs suggestion, we think that the Metro can remain underground at the very minimum till the Qutub station on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, if not the whole stretch till Chattarpur station. The station itself can remain underground.
4. For the track from Qutab station to Chattarpur station, we would prefer that this be underground through tunneling. If there are technical difficulties in doing so, then the cut and cover method may be used, whilst still retaining the underground character. Only as a last resort must the track can go overground.
5. We expect that the decision to adopt any of the above options would be based only on technical considerations, which are transparent and justifiable, and not on any other basis of cost, etc.
6. We understand from the DMRC that going underground may be fully ‘technically’ feasible, but will cost about Rs 160 crores per km additional. This figure may seem high on its own, but considering the fact that the value of the land being proposed to be diverted to Metro is far in excess of this amount (in fact could be several times over) and that the net present value (NPV) calculated is very low, the cost is very much a fraction of the actual cost of going overground.
7. No commercial activities: There is a distinct possibility that the Metro may attract commercial interests and activities in the Ridge. In fact, we understand the new Master Plan of Delhi (MPD 2021) proposes that the Metro be a 'commercial corridor'. This has to be to prevented at any cost in this stretch. Even if the stretch is made underground (as is our proposal), this will need a station at Qutab and at Chattarpur, which can become sites of commercial growth in the form of shops, transport stands, malls as has happened in other Metro stations. At no rate can or should the Metro become or open any paths or precedence to any commercial activities on any area of the Ridge forest, either around the stations or running lines or any other DMRC structures.
8. Land use: As far as utilisation of land by DMRC goes, in our discussions with them the DMRC engineers agreed to the above and stated that they had no plans/proposals or intentions of using land under their control for generating revenue in the case of the Ridge. Inspite of the fact, we were told, that DMRC has a policy of generating 8 per cent of its overall revenue through property development. Suitable recommendation/directions may kindly be given on the non-use of Ridge land for commercial purposes.
9. Compensatory afforestation and related issues: Observations on our site visits indicate that trees likely to be affected in the lands that the DMRC is seeking are well in thousands. A proper and full survey with species wise numbers would surely be needed.
An important point for the CEC and the Hon'ble Supreme Courts attention and suitable action is: Typically, thus far, the standard practice of compensatory afforestation in Delhi, including in the case of Phase 1 of DMRC, has been to undertake the afforestation up to 30 - 40 km away from the site of impact, primarily in Najafgarh and other border areas of Delhi. This obviously, does not mitigate or compensate the negative impacts of tree clearing in given areas. Further, the pockets of land given for such compensatory afforestation are abysmally small (large trees are planted at a distance of merely 1 or 1½ meter). There are issues of concern, similar to above and others, regarding translocation of trees, as well. Some years back, NGO inspections of compensatory and other afforestation, at the request of the Delhi Government, revealed the above deficiencies.
Compensatory afforestation is of particular significance in the case of the Ridge forest areas. We strongly suggest that at least in this instance, all compensatory afforestation be undertaken adjacent to or near areas from where trees may need to be removed. In the Saket to Andheria Mor stretch. there are some Ridge lands near the proposed Metro alignment that are in need of afforestation and regeneration. Like in earlier instances, compensatory afforestation could be undertaken by the Forest department (as it's the most appropriate agency for the task) on behalf of DMRC.
10. Species selection and monitoring: After care/survival is another important aspect of compensatory afforestation. Only species native/indigenous to the Ridge/Aravali ranges should be planted.
11. The Ridge Management Board must be involved to assist/advise on indigenous species selection and identifying similar nearby/adjacent lands where compensatory afforestation and translocation can be undertaken.
12. Trees translocation: We would suggest that selection of nearby/close vicinity areas for translocation and compensatory afforestation should be in fact be made a part of general DMRC policy in relation to trees and expanded to all other agencies as well. The nearest possible areas, (with multiple sites - if necessary) need to be considered first, stretching to a maximum radius of about 1-2 km.
13. No further areas be allocated for parking expansion, etc: In the case of Chattarpur station where land is being sought for a fair sized parking facility, this may be planned as multi-level parking from the outset.
14. Construction phase: There is a need to ensure that the land and trees surrounding the areas cleared/approved for construction of running lines, stations, etc. must not suffer any negative impacts, either during construction or later. Similarly, the progress and maintenance of compensatory afforestation would need monitoring and guidance. This is especially important in the case of Ridge land. A suitable monitoring mechanism, like an advisory/monitoring board may need to be constituted. This board could also look at other areas where plantation has happened to enhance the greens.
15. A minimum of 5 per cent of the cost of construction between Saket and Arjun Garh to be paid to Forest Department for enhancing the green cover in the Ridge and watersheds, etc.
16. In all the above monitoring of the DMRC on this section, the Ridge Management Board (RMB), along with the CEC should be fully involved.
17. Further recommendations: A proper and full evaluation/assessment of sites, plans, proposed alignments and alternatives of the proposed Metro link with Gurgaon certainly requires more time than the less than a week that we presently had. Consequently, we, as well as other environment NGOs, environment experts and citizens are likely to have more concerns and recommendations to share in the future.