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Above: Photo courtesy Delhi SOS/Facebook  

~By Lilly Paul

It took a massive citizen protest, a stay order from the Delhi High Court and a contempt petition, for the Centre to rethink its controversial decision of felling over 14, 000 trees for housing redevelopment project in South Delhi localities of Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Mohammadpur, Sriniwaspuri, Kasturba Nagar and Thyagaraj Nagar.

“No trees would be cut in the process of redevelopment of seven colonies in South Delhi”, said Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri while assuring Delhiites that the national capital’s green cover would not be “damaged” but all necessary steps will be taken to enhance it. The statement was put out by the ministry on Thursday night.

The news about felling trees drew huge flak from the public with the residents of Delhi coming out prominently against the decision and the Capital getting its own Chipko movement. The Delhi High Court, while acting on a petition by Dr Kaushal Kant Mishra to set aside the terms of reference (ToR) and Environment Clearance granted to the project, had put the tree felling plan on hold till July 4, the next hearing in the matter before the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

The NBCC’s construction project was under controversy right from the beginning. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by the NBCC for the Sarojini Nagar redevelopment project was not exactly above board. On Page 99 of the report, under the heading “Potential loss of green spaces” it acknowledges that demolition of huge buildings would reduce the natural greenery of the area but adds that the large landscaping planned and suggested in the construction project, would compensate for the loss. Environmentalist MC Mehta called the entire exercise of cutting trees a crime. He told India Legal: “Environmental clearances are totally a farcical exercise. It has no meaning at all. Environmental clearances are something present on the paper only,” said Mehta.

Despite the high court banning any felling of trees till July 4, there were reports on the NBCC carrying out felling of trees in Netaji Nagar, South Delhi. Vimlendu Jha, an environmentalist and founder of Swechha, filed a contempt petition in Delhi High Court seeking action against the NBCC for violating the high court orders. Speaking to India Legal, Jha said, “There were trees rashly being cut by the NBCC and I reported the matter but police refused to take cognisance of it and file an FIR, so I filed a contempt plea in the Delhi High Court.”

The national capital’s efforts on the greening front have at best been half-hearted. It does not have a Delhi Forest Policy of its own and the Tree Authority constituted under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA), 1994 with Forest Department as Chairman is responsible for preservation of trees. As per Section 4 of the Act, the Authority shall conduct a meeting at least once in three months. However, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2017 reveals that after its meeting in July, 2013, the Tree Authority met again only in December 2016. During 2014-17, only a single meeting was called.

One of the arguments that the government had based its entire tree felling drive on, was that it will increase the green cover of the affected region by five times, through carrying out compensatory afforestation. Section 10 of the DPTA has laid down clear guidelines regarding compensatory afforestation. For every tree felled, ten saplings have to be planted as compensatory afforestation. However, looking at the past record of the Forest Department, it is very unlikely that the government will be able to meet its target. Against the obligation of planting over 65, 000 saplings during 2014-17, the department could plant only 21, 048 saplings, which means they fell short of over 40,000 trees. Advocate Avani Bansal told India Legal: “Re-plantation is easier said than done. Last year on the World Environment Day, in an attempt to create a world record, the Madhya Pradesh government planted 6 crore trees in 12 hours but the question is how many of those trees survive? This is because planting a sapling is one thing but ensuring that it survives, given the lack of care and water is another.”

What’s more absurd about Delhi’s afforestation plans is that proposed new plantation shall be carried out 30 kms away from the affected area, in Wazirabad. This is despite the NGT’s order of last year which directed for in-situ compensatory afforestation and, only in the event of shortage of land for the same, for plantation to be carried out elsewhere.

“The lack of planning that goes into the decision-making process is bizarre. Just because there is empty land around the Yamuna floodplains, let’s plant the trees there, says the government. But, will these trees survive there” asks Bansal.

Jha agrees. “The air of Netaji Nagar is being polluted, and they will carry out plantation 30 kms away from the site. It is a sham,” he says.

The government’s reason behind the decision to fell trees is the shortage of government accommodation. The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs proposed, therefore, to redevelop the existing dilapidated housing colonies using modern technology with green building norms. However, Jha refuses to buy that argument.

“If you carefully look at the documents in the public domain with regard to this redevelopment project, a lot of the structures being revamped are commercial complexes as opposed to the Centre’s  claim of the plan being just about government bungalows. NBCC is listed on various property websites like 99 acres. All properties that will actually be developed in these areas will be on sale for private citizens and not just government employees. All brouhaha about the housing deficit for government employees is a farce. It is a commercial complex and it is a sham, that too at the cost of the Delhi’s environment, a city already choking for breath. If the government is not stopped right now, the next in line will be Lodhi colony, RK Puram, Vasant Kunj because government likes real estate and they would continue chopping trees in other parts of the city as well,” said Jha.

Questions are also being raised on why government employees must only be accommodated in posh south Delhi localities? Advocate Sanjay Vashishth told India Legal: “I truly believe that housing scheme could be developed elsewhere as well. I am confident that there has to be a sustainable alternative to this development scheme. We are choking. Our future is at risk and the risk is increasing at an unprecedented rate. I am afraid that we cannot afford to axe even a single tree at this stage. Institutions will first have to enhance their legitimacy by showing real work on ground”.

According to the State of Forest Report 2017 released by the Forest Survey of India, the forest cover of Delhi is 192.41 sq km which is 12.97 percent of its geographical area. However, despite the rampant chopping of trees in the capital over the years, it is surprising that the report says Delhi’s forest cover has increased by 0.3 percent since 2015.

But, there’s a rider here, the increase recorded is only in the open and scrub forest categories whereas both very dense and moderately dense forests have actually recorded a decline. Says Jha: “The government’s way of collecting data is very flawed, even deceptive. The airports could be green but that is grass. There is a difference between green cover, tree cover and forest cover”.

The problem is not that of environment alone. There is a crisis of government credibility too.

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