Environmentalist and naturalist Pradip Krishen’s 2006 book Trees of Delhi—A Field Guide, is a bible for nature lovers and birdwatchers in the Capital. Few people know Delhi’s flora better than Krishen, who is working on a new book, Jungle Trees of Central India, due to be released this year.
Krishen spoke to Lounge about managing Delhi’s forests. Edited excerpts:
We are in Garhi Mandi in south Delhi. A spectacular place—I don’t think many people in Delhi know about a forest like this in the middle of the city.
No, you won’t see many people here apart from the villagers who stay around the area. This is all alluvial soil that got piled up millions of years ago by the shifting of the Yamuna. It’s pure silt, sometimes 80ft deep. The ecosystem is totally different from the rest of the Ridge. For example, here’s a tree called jhand. It likes sandy, deep soil because it has incredibly deep roots—30-40m—so you will only find jhand in old riverbeds like this, or Lodhi Gardens. People eat the fruit of the tree. The bark saved lives during the Great Rajputana Famine (1868-70), because you can make flour out of it. The leaves make great fodder, bees love the flowers. In Rajasthan, the jhand is called khejri and is worshipped.
Here’s sheesham, it’s not a native tree, but grows well in silted areas. Most of the foliage you see is babool, or the true kikar, not vilayati kikar. Babool is native, and is almost an indicator of good alluvial soil. This is chudail here, a great native species that becomes a huge tree, then we have palash or flame of the forest, and semal.
Now this is a tree from Africa called Acacia tortilis or Israeli babool and this has been planted across Haryana and Rajasthan by forest departments because it is extremely drought-hardy, and animals don’t browse on it. Also, nothing nests in it, and it has absolutely no biodiversity value.
While some parts of this forest are beautiful, most of it looks badly degraded.
Yes, it’s a theatre of destruction. There’s encroachment from all sides since this land has no legal protection, and the state agencies still haven’t mapped boundaries for these forested areas. Surely the role of the forest department is to treat this as a repository for useful species, and to use it in a way that is sustainable, by talking to people, engaging people. There is space here, elevation, different water gradients, a seasonal lake, everything you need.
If I was a forest officer in Delhi, I would be a bit puzzled about what my role is and where I’m supposed to go. They have virtually no role in the urban space; not on roadsides, and certainly not in parks. The Ridge is one big swathe where they can play a role. The Central Ridge is a great opportunity in the middle of the city for them to actually create an amazing forest which is beautifully adapted to the environment.
The forest department has been planting trees on “gram sabha” land in outlying areas in Delhi, but these plantations are all in little pockets. Each pocket is about the size of a football field.
I see very little utility in planting trees in little fragmented pockets, it just helps their statistics. A forest is much larger than its parts, it has to be a little micro habitat. Fragmentation is a deadly process for forests. There is a drastic fall in the number of species, both flora and fauna, when you fragment a forest. A fragmented forest is not viable on its own.
The Delhi government spends a lot of time and money on plantation drives. How important is it to plant the right kind of trees?
It is critical to plant the right trees. It starts with ecological issues—if you plant native trees, than you are planting trees already adapted to the environment; they don’t need any extra water or nutrients. If you plant exotic species, let’s say something that grows well in a rainforest, you will have to use vast amounts of water to make it flourish, and there can be no excuse for that wastage. We all know what the vilayati kikar, introduced by the British from Central America at the turn of the 20th century, has done. It has invaded with alarming speed, killed off native flora and established itself all over the Ridge. I was once invited by the forest department to go to Asola (Delhi’s only wildlife sanctuary) when they were on a plantation drive. They did not have a single native plant. I left. There is a huge awareness/sensitization gap that applies to every agency in Delhi concerned with horticultural work. Most recruits are taught nothing more than watering plants and digging pits.
Here, at the Central Ridge forest, how many species of trees can you see? How many can actually thrive here if this area is properly managed?
Right here there are 10-12 species of plants with decent populations. If there was proper management and the vilayati kikar was destroyed, this very water-stressed environment can support 80 species of just trees, not counting shrubs and climbers. Jodhpur has one-fifth the rainfall of Delhi, but supports large tracts of forests that have 70-80 species of trees.
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