Can you believe we are still in the city?” K.S. Gopi Sundar asks with a wide smile. “This place is almost unbelievable.” A research scientist with the US-headquartered International Crane Foundation, Sundar leads a programme in India documenting the habitats of the Sarus crane. But it’s not the lanky, dancing bird that’s making Sundar happy. The reason for his joy is that 10 minutes by foot from his apartment in south Delhi, Sundar can enter Sanjay Van, a dense urban woodland, and spend hours watching a dazzling variety of birds. “Delhi has such extensive forests,” he says, “that you even get to see birds you’d never normally see in a city.”
In fact, there’s only one capital city in the world which hosts a greater variety of birds than Delhi’s checklist of nearly 450 species, and that’s Nairobi, Kenya. “And Nairobi is next to the Serengeti National Park (in Tanzania),” says Sundar, “so you can imagine how special that makes Delhi.”
Sundar walks with sprightly purpose through the earthen trails inside Sanjay Van, and with the sharp eye of an experienced birdwatcher, spots around a dozen species in under 10 minutes. The trail leads down to a small lake full of ducks, and up towards the ancient fortress wall of Lal Kot, built around a thousand years ago. The stone wall rises gently above the canopy like a ridge, and at the top, offers a spectacular view—a sea of green radiating in every direction, the Qutub Minar dominating the skyline, and in the far distance, a few skyscrapers, the only evidence of the city.
It is not easy to look beyond the thick clutter of cars, or the urban flood of people and concrete, and notice Delhi’s trees and forests. But the extent of Delhi’s green cover, compared with our other major cities, is startling—squarely against the grain of rapid urbanization, the greenery is growing.
The latest India State of Forest Report 2011, brought out by the Union ministry of environment and forests, says Delhi’s green cover (which includes shrubs and trees outside forests) doubled in a decade—from 151 sq. km in 2001 to 296.2 sq. km in 2011. In the same period, Bangalore lost 269 sq. km. of dense forest. Between 2009 and 2011, 367 sq. km. of land officially classified as forest was lost countrywide. While all the major cities in India have less than 15% of their area under forest or tree cover (and dwindling), Delhi lists a remarkable 20% according to the report. The city’s forest department claims the number has gone up by at least 2% now and is set to keep increasing over the next decade.
“It is the most challenging job I’ve ever done,” says G.N. Sinha, chief conservator at the department of forest, Delhi. After a decade of working in Goa and Arunachal Pradesh and its extensive forests, Delhi, he says, felt scary when he was posted here in early 2012. “The demand for land is so high,” he says. “I thought, who can think of a forest in a place like this?”
Tilak Chand, 53, has been facing that challenge head on since 1990, when he joined the forest department. “Delhi was in a terrible state then,” he says. “If it was not built-up land, it was wasteland. There were no forested areas.”
Chand is now an assistant conservator. In his field office abutting the Central Ridge, a large expanse of woodland in the heart of the city, he is struggling with a mound of papers. Almost all of them are related to court cases fighting encroachment on forest land. “It is getting harder and harder to hold on to our lands,” he says. “If we file a case, an encroacher will get a stay from the court, and that takes care of that for 10 years.”
In 1997, Chand says, he was part of the creation of the first “city forest” by his department, around Hauz Rani in south Delhi, a settlement that dates back to the 13th century. Now he is overseeing the plantation and development of five new city forests, all in the rural parts of Najafgarh (though still inside the administrative boundaries of the National Capital Territory). The forests are coming up on gram sabha land—uncultivated land owned by the villages. They occur like patchwork between farmlands, groves the size of football fields, some planted five years back and already thick with trees, some planted a few months back with knee-high saplings.
“We clean the land, weed it, till it, fertilize and water it, plant the saplings,” Chand says. “For the first three years, it’s hard going, and then the forest begins to take care of itself.” Five years after the first saplings are planted, the woodland becomes self-sustaining. Standing near a shady grove in Najafgarh that was planted five years back, Chand points out a tall tree overhung with a crowded network of weaver bird nests. “As their habitats increase, birds and small animals begin coming on their own,” he says.
The new impetus for Delhi’s afforestation was made possible by a Union government body referred to as Campa—the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. An agency that manages to legally acquire forest land anywhere in India for development purposes pays Campa the value of that land. Campa holds on to this money on behalf of the state, and pays out part of it every year for afforestation and forest maintenance according to the states’ needs. In 2010, when Campa was implemented, Delhi generated more than Rs.18 crore worth of funding. Since then, the Capital has received a little less than Rs.2 crore annually for forestry.
An older law, the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, which came into effect in 1996, has also played a central role in increasing the city’s green cover.
“It’s a unique rights-based approach for a tree,” says environmentalist Ravi Agarwal, who runs the NGO Toxics Link. Anyone who cuts a tree, even in their own backyard, needs permission from the forest department, and for every tree cut, an individual or organization has to pay the cost of planting 10 saplings.
These funds are shared by all the civic agencies in Delhi who have trees or forests under their jurisdiction. The Delhi Development Authority, or DDA, has some of the best-known urban woodlands and parks in the city. Some are archaeological parks with extensive greenery, like Lodhi Garden, some are natural forests with walking trails, like the Jahanpanah City Forest. The DDA made the smart move of outsourcing forestry work to the experts with its share of the Campa pie. They tied up with Delhi University’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems to develop green areas called biodiversity parks, as well as improve pre-existing woodlands. This year, nearly 0.64 sq. km of restored wetland forest, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, was deemed fully functional. Restoration work on another 1,200 acres of contiguous wetland is on. Another biodiversity park, in the Aravalli hills in the southern part of the city, is almost ready.
Emeritus professor C.R. Babu, who heads the project, says proposals for five more parks have been approved, some of them to link and expand existing forests that have been fragmented over the years by buildings and roads. Fragmentation rapidly destroys a forest’s ecosystem.
“The Yamuna Biodiversity Park itself will extend up to 1,000 acres finally,” Prof. Babu says. “It will be a network of wetlands, grasslands, and flood plain forests.”
Around eight years ago, when he first saw the land on which the Yamuna Biodiversity Park stands now, Prof. Babu says it was so degraded and polluted that nothing grew on it. “Now we have over 400 species of plants, porcupines, civet cats, jungle cats, even wild boars. Once the full thing is developed, it will be one of the finest bird sanctuaries in India.”
Paradise to parking lot
Delhi’s forests are such an integral part of its heritage that the history of the city can be traced through them. Most of Delhi’s forests are on the Ridge, the tail end of the Aravalli hills that runs from the south to the north of the city like a crooked, inverted “y”. Once contiguous, it is now divided into four fragmented zones, and has been the topographic feature that attracted settlers to the area for thousands of years. From the eighth-century Lal Kot fort and 12th century Qutub Minar, to Shah Jahan’s 17th century walled city and Lutyens’ 20th century Delhi, much of the Capital’s historical architecture is found in and around the Ridge.
The battle for Delhi in the 1857 uprising happened here: the British, picketed for three months at what is now Hindu Rao Hospital, at the northern end of the Ridge, overlooking the walled city; the Indian fighters using the Mughal gardens, orchards and forest groves around the city as cover to snipe from. When the British finally took over the city, they used the orchards of the 18th century Qudsia Bagh as cover. Built by Begum Qudsia, a dancing girl who married Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah , the massive garden contained a pleasure palace, a mosque, rose gardens and fruit orchards and ornate gateways. A small part of the bagh, ruins of the mosque and one gateway still remain. Once the sepoys were defeated, the British set about the task of retribution with savage frenzy. Along with people and buildings, the trees that hid the Indian fighters were also massacred.
In the early 1900s, the British began restoring some of the Mughal gardens, and when their capital shifted from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi, afforestation work began in full swing. The idea was that the new Imperial capital would be “a sea of foliage”. The avenue trees planted by the British still form the bulk of the greenery in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Post-independence, as Delhi exploded into the megacity it is today, large chunks of the Ridge were swallowed up by the city, and more and more forest lands were left under dumped construction material—concrete, plastic, cement, and other garbage. By the 1990s, Delhi was on the brink of an ecological disaster. Less than 5% of the city had green cover, and the Yamuna had become little more than a sewage canal for industrial effluents.
A long battle
Reclaiming Delhi’s greens from that critical point has been hard work.
The Ridge got legal protection as a reserve forest in 1994, after a campaign to save it began in 1992. Agarwal, who was part of that campaign, now sits on the Ridge Management Board which oversees the protection of that area. “The fight is still as tricky and hard as before,” he says. “The board gets a proposal for land diversion once every two-three months, and it’s complicated because there is always a case for larger public good—a new road, Metro lines, power transmission lines.” The board, which has representatives from all the civic bodies, is always walking the thin line between preservation and development work. Much of it is avoidable, says Agarwal, if agencies factor in trees and forests at the beginning of the planning stage for a project.
“There is no sensitivity shown to the ecology,” Agarwal says. “No one at the planning stage thinks ‘Let’s see if there is a way these trees can be saved’.”
NGOs like Kalpavriksh, which began the Ridge campaign, continue to play a powerful role in keeping the greens alive; monitoring construction activity, making sure civic agencies remove concrete from around trees (a Delhi high court order from 2009 says all trees must have a 6ft circumference around them free of concrete to allow them to survive), and working with residents to conduct tree surveys in various localities.
Under the canopy
Delhi’s greening efforts may be on the right track, but problems still abound. One of the main concerns for environmentalists is the quality of a forest, and the kind of protection it gets. Environmentalist Pradip Krishen, the author of Trees of Delhi, did a quick survey, spread over a few days, of selected forest areas for this article to judge their quality. The ground reality is optimistic but messy.
Most of the Ridge forests are populated with a highly invasive South American plant called vilayati kikar or Mexican mesquite. Planted by the British at the turn of the 20th century in a misguided afforestation effort, the tree has taken over by killing local flora. “Not only does it destroy native plants and biodiversity, it also sucks up groundwater quickly,” Krishen says. “A forest area should do just the opposite, it should allow groundwater to recharge.”
Delhi’s department of forest says it makes no efforts to remove vilayati kikar. “We don’t plant it either,” Sinha says, “but it makes up nearly 80% of the Ridge forest, so we will lose all the green cover if we try to remove it.”
At a large swathe of forest land near a village called Mandi in south Delhi, villagers carry away head-loads of firewood. Most of the forest is highly degraded, and there are stumps of trees chopped off everywhere.
“This is a theatre of destruction,” Krishen says. “When it could have been an ideal repository for useful tree species—there is space here, different elevations, different water gradients, a seasonal lake.”
A simple idea, Krishen says, would be to build awareness among villagers.
“Instead of villagers cutting down whatever tree they feel like, why can’t forest officials educate them and tell them to cut only the vilayati kikar?” he asks. “It makes excellent firewood, and this way the forest department doesn’t have to do anything at the expense of the people’s needs.”
The Ridge forests are poorly protected as well. Krishen says he has never seen “a single forest official” in the Central Ridge, which he has been exploring almost every day for 40 years, and encroachment is rife. “The biggest violators are state agencies themselves,” Agarwal says. “Private parties don’t stand a chance. But what do you do when the civic agencies themselves are the perpetrators?”
Agarwal says the Ridge Management Board is constantly battling government bodies—the DDA dumps construction material on the ridge, the army starts building housing quarters without permission.
The list is long. Yet Delhi at least has the chance to turn things around. It has already made a strong start.
“The city has remarkable potential,” Krishen says. “Can you imagine, if the Central Ridge is properly managed, you will have the most unique, amazing forest, rich in plant and animal species, in the middle of the city?”
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How other cities are doing
Most urban areas are losing their green spaces because of neglect and inaction.
u Mumbai: There has been a slight improvement since 2001 due to various efforts at conserving mangrove forests. But all the major projects have been stalled. The Mangrove Wetland Centre, an ambitious project to regenerate the protected forests around Thane Creek, began with much fanfare in 2008, and was supposed to be completed by 2011. It is far from complete. The Conservation Action Trust, which is building the park, says progress is very slow. HSBC India is funding the project. The City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd (Cidco) was supposed to develop a mangrove park in Navi Mumbai to compensate for the wetlands it will clear to make the Navi Mumbai International Airport. It has now pulled out of the mangrove project. Instead, it approached the Bombay high court for exemption from Forest (Conservation) Act clearances. The high court rejected the plea in January and asked Cidco to approach the Union ministry of environment and forests.
u Kolkata: The East Kolkata Wetlands, the only urban wetland in India to feature on the list of globally important wetland areas, is being steadily encroached upon. There are no proper conservation plans or funding, despite the formation of a management authority in 2006. The wetlands act as a natural sewage treatment area for most of Kolkata’s waste water.
u Bangalore: The UN’s ‘Cities And Biodiversity Outlook 2012’ report says Bangalore has been rapidly losing its network of lakes, wetlands and forests, especially in the peripheral areas, due to rapid urbanization, despite government conservation projects. There are multiple community initiatives to save lakes.
u Pune: The city has seen some increase in green cover after the formation of community organizations like the Pune Tree Watch, which monitor the felling and distribution of trees in the city, and work as project advisers with civic agencies.