A view Delhi forest, a green cover area of Delhi.

Lungs under threat

Delhi may well boast of being one of the greenest Capital cities in the world. Its urban forests, and their resident wildlife population, are not just a legacy but vital lungs to contain the ever-increasing pollution levels of a vibrant metropolitan city. Yet developers are eyeing these verdant oases, ignoring protests from environmentalists. How long will these pockets of green hold out, wonders Rakesh Kumar

There was a time in history when what we know as Delhi was covered in thick forests teeming with wild-life. What much of the sprawling Capital and its satellite cities have now been converted into is a deafening concrete jungle of towering buildings, roads and incessantly honking vehicles. Yet, the city boasts of being one of the greenest Capitals in the world as the last vestiges of the forests continue to hold their own within this urban jungle. Only next to the Kenyan Capital of Nairobi, Delhi has a sizeable forest cover that is home to a fair population of wildlife. Spread over a total area that could cover 6,000 football fields, the urban forests are fighting for survival as land sharks continue to snipe at their roots.

 Known at various points of its history as Jahanabad or Indraprastha, the Capital has inherited not just monuments but several patches of forests. The longest stretch is the Ridge that extends from Southeast at Tughlaqabad, near the Bhati mines, tapering off in the north Wazirabad on the river Yamuna. This 7,777-hectare reserved forest area not just lends a natural beauty to the city but helps clean the city air. No wonder, one can term the Ridge area the lungs of the city.

 The Jahanpanah Forest in South Delhi, spread over 800 acres, is a popular fitness destination for residents of nearby localities. The Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in the Southern Ridge. Then there are 26 areas notified as protected forests, according to the Delhi government’s forest department. The department has, over the years raised plantations in village (gaon sabha) and government lands and maintains them as city forests. There are 13 old city forests to which new city forests are added, the department of forests and wildlife says in its website.

 At first glance everything may look quite good. But ground reality, if environmentalists and experts are to be believed, is not so rosy. Apart from the natural forests, those forest regions that were once planted to make Delhi beautiful and protect it from desertification and help cover its ruins are reeling under a lot of pressure and have a fair chance for extinction. With every passing decade the size of the forest region is shrinking very rapidly, thanks to development plans for the city. Not only this, an acute shortage of staff in the forest department makes this region very vulnerable from encroachers and hard to manage. Scant security also makes it ideal for criminals and criminal activities in these isolated forests.

 For environmentalists, however, these are minor problems. The real problem is the introduction of exotic species, which have decimated native plants. One such tree, informed C R Babu, a Delhi University professor, is vilayati kikar (Prosopis juliflora). “What is the actual use of a plant? To maintain the atmosphere and manage groundwater,” opined C R Babu. “Vilayati kikar, which was brought from Mexico (by the British in early 1920s) fail on both fronts. It consumes more water, which is not good for Delhi.” The kikar tree has also monopolized entire areas ~ mainly the Ridge ~ and killed any competition from other native species. This has also impacted the area’s biodiversity. Now, Delhi’s forest department has embarked upon a massive plan to replace these kikar trees with native species.

 Environmentalists also rubbish government’s claims, with its facts and figures, to have increased forest region. It is just an eyewash, they assert.

The Ridge

Delhi is located on the tail-end of the ancient Aravalli Mountain Range. Over 800 km long, with an elevation of 1,700 metres, the mountain range is 1.5 billion years old as against the much younger 50 million-year-old Himalayas. It culminates at the river Yamuna. The hilly spurs, which once occupied almost 15 per cent of the city’s land is known as the Delhi Ridge or The Ridge.  

 Delhi’s government website says the total forest and tree cover of NCT (National Capital territory) of Delhi is 299.77 sq km (20.22 per cent of the total area), made up of 111 sq km of tree cover and 188.77 sq km of forest cover. Around 85 per cent of plant species in the Ridge area is thorny scrub, which are found in arid and semi-arid zones.

History and decline

History of Ridge forest is quite old and mesmerising. Delhi has two natural features: the Ridge and River Yamuna, which prompted rulers down the ages to make this place their Capital. These two features also protected Delhi against intruders and calamities. Perhaps this was also the reason which made Mughals and the British to shift their Capitals from Agra to Delhi and Kolkata to Delhi respectively. 

 Till the 14 century, the Ridge was covered with thorny scrubs with very little green cover. A lot of afforestation was done during the Sultanate era. Rulers in this era were keen hunters and, therefore, ensured forests were maintained in and around Delhi. King Feroz Shah Tughlaq is recorded to have planted hundreds of trees in the Old Delhi Ridge area during his reign. The British too planted trees on the Ridge to maintain beauty as well as ecology of the region. Their map of 1807 highlights the Ridge as extending from north to south continuously.

 When Delhi became the Capital city of British India, the Northern Ridge was declared as a Reserve Forest. Before Independence, the Central Ridge also obtained a similar status. “Much before the British, when Mughal empire was on its decline, the green forests of Delhi had turned into barren dessert. There was very little vegetation left in Delhi. Therefore, the British needed to import the vilayati kikar, which is a fast growing tree,” informed C R Babu.

 The process of development is not the recent phenomenon. The downfall of Ridge forest started in 1920-30, when a massive development was taking place in the Capital. A large portion of Ridge near Delhi University was blasted to provide land to make colonies and business premises. The Karol Bagh area is a result of this. There were several other cases of deforestation due to development. Then post-Independence the fast growing population of Delhi put a lot of stress on the natural resources of the city and the area under forest cover started diminishing. Only in 1980s, the Northern and Southern Ridge were again declared as Reserved Forests.

Good steps

If government facts and figures are to be believed, the Capital has been lucky enough to have an increment of green patches, if one compares with other metropolitan cities of India. It points to an increase of green cover of Delhi from 20.08 per cent to 20.22 per cent, which works out to 0.14 per cent of the geographic area. This looks quite good given the incessant infrastructural projects and large scale construction taking place in Delhi. In 2011 Delhi’s total forest area was 296.20 sq. km, which has now gone up to 299.77 sq km.

 “We have raised plantations on gaon sabha and other government lands. There is also the Biodiversity Park. This is how we have increased the green patches. At the same time, a strict law against tree cutting has also helped a lot,” said the chief forest conservator of Delhi. Official reports point to forest patches in places like Nasirpur, Alipur, Hauzrani,  Mitraon, Sultanpur, Mukhmelpur and Bawana.

 As per the guidelines of the National Forest Policy 1988, a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country should be under forest or tree cover. If a city comes under the hilly region, it has to maintain two-third of the area under forests. Another rule, which is quite helpful for forests, is Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, which came into effect from 1996. This played an important role in increasing the city’s green cover. As per its rules, anyone who cuts a tree has to seek permission from the forest department. Not only this, be it an organisation or individual, one has to compensate by planting 10 saplings. “This is the biggest booster for our forest department. Now, tell me, who will cut a tree and pay Rs 35,000 for ten saplings,” said the government official.

 Apart from this, CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) ~ an agency that legally acquires forest land anywhere in India for development purposes ~ also played a vital role for conserving forest. CAMPA is the central scheme, which pays the value of that land, which holds money on behalf of the state and allocates funds 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 funds. Since then, the Capital has received a little less than Rs 2 crore annually for forestry. With this fund, they restored wetland forest and Yamuna Biodiversity Park.

 “The Yamuna Biodiversity Park is spread over 1,000 acres and is a network of wetlands, grasslands and flood plain forests. Now it has over 400 species of plants, porcupines, civet cats, jungle cats and even wild boars,” said C R Babu.

Hoards of problems

The main problem started post-Independence, when Delhi became a hub of development. A large portion of the Ridge was then swallowed up, note environmentalists. Not only this, the forest lands were left under dumped construction material of concrete, cement, plastic and garbage. It was so rampant that by 1990s, Delhi was on the verge of becoming an ecological disaster ~ its green cover area was depleting and the Yamuna had become little more than a sewage canal for industrial effluents. Thanks to some landmark court cases, including M C Mehta vs Union of India case, the city’s forests got a lifeline. No construction was to be done in future on forest areas.

 “When it comes to development, agencies become quite insensitive. Nobody thinks about Delhi forest or saving trees. They are in a hurry to lay new roads, Metro lines and power transmission lines,” said environmentalist lawyer M C Mehta. “Even after the Supreme Court order a lot of construction has taken place in this Ridge area. Take for example, CRPF site at Ghitorni Metro station. Or, on your way to Surajkund, you will find many trees have been cut down.”

The lawyer also questioned the official facts and figures, which shown an increment in the city’s green cover. “Who says, green land has increased in the Capital? It is nothing like this. They have played with the facts and figures. What they are counting is all the trees everywhere, not in the jungle area. The jungle area had depleted very fast. If you don’t believe check the satellite pictures,” said M C Mehta.

 There is widespread dumping of garbage and construction waste materials in several forest areas. “All the area are well fenced. However, some anti-social element dump waste inside. We will take care of it,” informed the government official.

 The huge staff crunch is also taking its toll on the forest area. It has become a very tough to manage encroachment and security in these areas. The sanctioned number of forest officers is around 200, but the actual number is very low. There are only 38 forest guards against the required 66. All six posts for forest rangers are vacant. “I know there is some encroachment problem in these forests. But we have recently trained 30 forest officers to take care of the forest areas. At the same time, we are also mulling to include some technology-driven staff, which will lower our work pressure,” said another government official. 

Ecological issues

For environmentalist the biggest problem is the exotic invasive species, which have little use for green land. Most of the Ridge forests are populated with the highly-invasive South American vilayati kikar or Mexican mesquite, which was brought by British when Delhi became the Capital (as mentioned above). As per C R Babu, the tree has taken over by killing local flora. “It has destroyed native plants and also sucks up groundwater quickly. The only advantage of these trees is that they grow fast and later on, a good amount of wood can be used. However, if one checks the environment, it is not of much use.”   

 The British were under pressure to make the Capital green. Therefore, they imported this species from the South American country. C R Babu also informed that several colonial countries in West Africa, where this vilyati kikar was introduced by the British, have filed a case citing damaging their environment. However, to tackle this menace, government has come up with a plan to remove the trees. It seems to be an impossible task as the tree species constitutes 80 per cent of the area. However, the recently developed Biodiversity Park is a living example of what can be done to revive a forest area. “Give me 10 years. I will change the face of Delhi forests, as I have done with Delhi Biodiversity Park,” declared C R Babu.

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