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13.07.2018

In the first week of July, soon after Delhi received its first official monsoon rain for 2018, I went for a night walk in Sanjay Van. The air was heavy with moisture, and the light of the full moon came filtered through a sky even hazier than Delhi's usual. The oppressive humidity mattered little as we made our way into the undergrowth, listening for nilgai, watching in horrified fascination as a spider on its giant cobweb gift-wrapped its supper before our eyes. What made the walk such an incredible experience was the feeling that we were within blinking distance of the lights of Vasant Kunj and JNU, and yet very much in the wild. If we had any doubts, as we clambered up onto the 11th century wall of Lalkot, two packs of jackals in the distance began an impromptu howling match.

Sanjay Van forms the core of the South-Central Ridge, a 626-hectare tract that's one of Delhi's remaining chunks of urban forest. That classification can seem confusing, because the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which controls the area, seems to conflate the cultivated greenery of parks and gardens with forests: over the years, the authorities have even planted several non-native species that are merely ornamental, like succulents, cacti or champa trees. They have cleared spaces around the rocky outcrops, as if to encourage picnics; built a gigantic look-out tower, a machaan for viewing wildlife – and then laid out a lawn around it.

It struck me later that this apparent inability to distinguish between jungle and garden might have a deeper implication. It might, in fact, have a slightly sinister connection to the claim, last made in the State of Forests Report of 2017, that Delhi's forest cover is increasing. “Despite several infrastructural projects and large scale construction taking place in Delhi, the Forest and Tree Cover of Delhi has been increasing on a sustained basis from 22 Sq. Km. (1.48%) in 1993 to 299.77 Sq. Km. (20.22%) in 2015,” the Delhi government's Forest Department states.

But the government pats itself on the back, adding that “The Hon’ble Prime Minister has also complemented Delhi on its rising green cover over the years,” even though the same report makes clear that Delhi has lost about 0.2 sq km of very dense forest and 0.9 sq km of moderately dense forest since 2015. The stated “increase” is an eyewash, a sleight of hand achieved by changing the mode of calculation of forest cover in 1999, such that scrubland, plantations and orchards now count alongside legally notified forest areas as part of forest cover.

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This is the sort of institutionalised skullduggery in keeping with the horror that the Central government authorised more recently: cutting down thousands of trees in the heart of South Delhi. A Rs 32,835 crore plan for the redevelopment of seven Delhi neighbourhoods - all some form of “government colony” - approved by the Centre in July 2016, turned out to have been granted permission to fell over 16,000 full-grown trees.

Each of these neighbourhoods, from Sarojini Nagar to Srinivaspuri, have been traditionally characterised by two-storeyed housing surrounded by generous open spaces and shade-giving trees, even if plot sizes, invariably, are calibrated to match the occupants’ status in government. Going by the 3-D images on the corrugated high walls currently surrounding these areas, this profoundly familiar urban form will soon be a thing of the past.

In Sarojiini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, for instance, a total housing stock of 8,087 government-owned flats will be replaced by 15,510 flats. To finance the cost of construction, the NBCC gets to build and auction 8,00,000 square metres of commercial real estate in these prime central locations. As environmental activists, academics and policy-makers have pointed out, this redevelopment will not just 'densify' these localities, but put a great deal of pressure on civic infrastructure intended for far smaller populations.

It would also alter the character of large parts of Delhi. The citizens’ movement that came into the public eye three weeks earlier as 'Delhi Trees SOS' has brought people together not just to hold placards but to hug trees in Sarojini Nagar. Some have put together skits and musical performances about the role of trees in the city's life and as a bulwark in our losing battle against air pollution. Others have initiated a 'tree census' that they hope might place the state’s claims under scrutiny.

It is true that these - that we - protesting South Delhi citizens have a disproportionate voice in the national media and social media, because they are English-speaking and upper-class, and have the privilege of airing their objections to the press because so many of them - us - are journalists. Of course we should ideally be fighting to protect trees from thoughtless developers all across the country, not just in what we consider our backyards. (The Goa government, for instance, recently approached the National Green Tribunal for permission to cut 55,000 trees for the construction of a second airport in North Goa: activists allege the real number of threatened trees is 90,000.)

None of this, however, excuses apathy or mockery of the protests currently underway in Delhi. As Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil wrote in their now-classic book Ecology And Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature In Contemporary India, there are structural reasons why bureaucratic regulators and their political masters are bound to fail our forests: “with no rewards for honest performance as custodians, and no punishment for misappropriation of the resource base, the regulators stand only to gain from profligacy – except, occasionally, when a major misdemeanour comes to light and they are exposed to adverse publicity.” Adverse publicity in Delhi has shown results: a Delhi Court bench stayed tree-cutting until July 26, and on July 7, the Delhi government revoked its tree-felling permissions to NBCC.

In Netaji Nagar last Sunday evening, I joined a friend and eight strangers in an ongoing tree census. At the end of a muggy hour and half, having gazed up into and measured the girths of a glorious neem, two shahtoots, two amaltases, a pilkhan, a possible tumri and a massive peepal, I emerged from my chosen census gali to find an even grander peepal standing sentinel over the remarkably peaceful chauraha. The local presswali, who had ironed clothes under it for fifty years, said it was planted by a “panditji” (who also happened to be a Class Four government employee). Stuffed with pictures of Hindu gods, it continues to be worshipped by locals. But it was also hung with green chadars from an adjacent Sufi shrine. That's just one of the 2276 trees we might yet save from the NBCC. It's enough to make anyone a tree-hugger.

Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and critic. She writes a weekly column on Indian cinema for the Mumbai Mirror, and other pieces on films, books, art, photography and the city for other publications. She blogs at Chhotahazri.

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