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Rooting for the Trees: India’s Capital Awakens to Its Ecological Challenges

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Asia Life

Rooting for the Trees: India’s Capital Awakens to Its Ecological Challenges

Recent protests against tree cutting underline Delhi’s problems with pollution.

Rooting for the Trees: India’s Capital Awakens to Its Ecological Challenges
Credit: Flickr / jctseng_1998

“Cut down the greed, not the green” and “Don’t cut down a life” were some of the slogans used on placards during the recent protests against the axing of trees in Delhi. One of the areas that witnessed demonstrations was Sarojini Nagar, where some local residents and environmentalists tied themselves to trees or hugged them to save the plants from the chainsaws.

Sarojini Nagar is a middle-class area by Delhi standards, or at least was after it had been built. The buildings are not particularly new, so the young middle class may aim to purchase more modern flats elsewhere. On the outside, however, one of the peculiar elements of Sarojini Nagar – unseen in many other Delhi neighborhoods – is that each group of small buildings has its own courtyard and a fence with a (usually open) gate, offering some privacy and a relatively safer space for children to play. There are other advantages as well. Located close to the center of Delhi and having a subway line near at hand, Sarojini Nagar, with its lush greenery and a pulsating market in its very heart, is one of the more livable places in India’s capital.

This is perhaps why the area was recently chosen to house more bureaucrats. The idea probably made perfect sense on the official level, as a large part of the buildings in the neighborhood are flats built by the Delhi Development Authority and hence the land is public. The initiative was advertised as self-financing, as the authorities claimed they would sell a part of the land for commercial use and the money earned this way would be used for the redevelopment of the public housing and its surrounding areas. The plan to revamp the area was approved in recent years and included constructing new buildings in place of the old ones. One of the reasons for this, arguably, was that the current buildings do not comply with fire safety standards. The plan would make the area attractive for the middle classes once again.

However, what seemed administratively logical turned out to be not quite ecological. A fact which until recently escaped the attention of the public – or maybe was deliberately hidden – was that since the plan involved the construction of many new houses it also meant the cutting down of thousands of trees. The other six areas earmarked for the “revamp” as late as in 2016 – Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Srinivaspuri and Mohammadpur – are also the same ones where the felling of trees began in June 2018 (and most are located close to Sarojini Nagar). Sarojini Nagar and its neighboring areas are attractive because they are green, but the project would eventually make them less green.

Around June 21, it was reported that trees were being brought down in Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, and Netaji Nagar. Delhi then witnessed what the capital seldom experiences: a promptly assembled, grassroots-level counteraction of residents and activists. News emerged that 16,500 trees were to be axed and some 1,300 had already been brought down before the protests started. Some authorities claimed that the trees will be replanted. The “revamping” project promised to double the green area of the neighborhoods – and during the controversy one minister even unrealistically promised to have 10 trees planted for each of the cut ones – but the same project also envisaged a near doubling of flats. It seems impossible that both green and living spaces can be doubled at the same time. It was clear that the urban jungle was about to swallow yet another part of the real jungle. Until nearly the end of June people voiced their anger by standing next to the endangered green areas, some even tying themselves to trees.

This time, the action brought, it seems, immediate results. The Delhi High Court ruled against the cutting and the Ministry of Environment promised that it will be halted. At the time of writing it seems that the axing has been stopped.

A part of the Indian media have dubbed these new protests as Chipko 2.0. The reference is to the Chipko Andolan, a movement that had taken places a few decades ago. The similarity is in the concern for nature and the technique: then and now the protesters would tie themselves to a tree or embrace it tightly, thus trying to prevent them from being felled. Chipkana, a verb in Hindi, means to “attach oneself to,” “to stick to”; chipko, the imperative form, literally means “attach [yourself to a tree].” The semblance ends here, however. The original Chipko had started as a movement of Indian tribal groups that opposed the cutting of trees because it was being done on their land. The so-called Chipko 2.0 is a protest against the destruction of nature in public, urban spaces by what seem to be mostly middle-class inhabitants of Delhi and ecologists. This, however, does not mean that there should be a copyright on the “attachment” technique or that the current protests are unimportant.

While this time rooting for nature stopped the uprooting of trees, Delhi’s ecological problem is persistent and becoming more acute every year. While the project to “revamp” Sarojini Nagar promised introducing “green facilities,” each time I read about new housing projects being “green” I feel semantically cheated. When nature is being erased to make room for buildings, the area obviously becomes less “green,” not more. The only way to keep it as green as before is to not build on it. However idealistic this may sound, this is exactly what Delhi needs (among a number of other solutions). Areas like Sarojini Nagar are a part of the lungs of the city, located not far from the country’s political heart: the government buildings in New Delhi. The planting and replanting of trees would take place farther from these congested urban centers, the newly-planted saplings would take years to grow into trees, while replanting is a difficult and volatile process which can often turn out to be unsuccessful.

Throughout the last few years, pollution in the capital has reached threatening levels. Delhi’s air is reportedly among the least breathable not only in India but around the globe. The quilt of smog that usually covers the city has started to break all previous intensity and density records. In November 2017 the levels of both PM10 and PM2.5 reached the scale of 999 micrograms per cubic meters, and this might have been only because the measuring machines could only display three digits. That time, both alarming and rare, was dubbed by some as the Great Smog of Delhi.

The current controversy underlines more than just Delhi’s pollution problem. While India is a federation of states, the governments of which have a wide autonomy, and union territories, which are to a large degree ruled by the central government, the National Capital Territory of Delhi is in neither of the two categories. It is in an administrative middle zone, having more autonomy than a union territory but less than a state. While Delhi has its own elected legislative assembly and a government, many of its powers are limited by the central government (the seat of which Delhi is housing). The Delhi Police, for instance, are responsible to the federal Ministry of Home Affairs, not to the city’s government.

While the haze of pollution usually hangs above the city, the haze of administrative complexities covers a part of Delhi’s formal proceedings. As of now, the lieutenant governor of Delhi doubles as the director of the Delhi Development Authority, the body that approves the urbanization plans for the city and hence is apparently responsible for the already-mentioned “redevelopment” project, which envisaged cutting down the trees. The lieutenant governor is formally appointed by the president of India. The party ruling in Delhi (the Aam Aadmi Party) often clashes with the lieutenant governor as a representative of the central government, led by a rival party (Bharatiya Janata Party). The redevelopment plan was also approved by the central Ministry of Urban Development and is realized by a public company, the National Building Construction Company. At the same time, however, it seems impossible that the Delhi government was unaware of the details of a revamping plan that was approved two years ago. While criticizing the felling, Delhi’s forest minister admitted that there was “laxity” of his own forest department when it came to earlier “notifications.” While it is unclear how much this awkward political situation influenced this particular controversy, it certainly added to general administrative chaos and allowed for a blame game between the authorities.

While the recent protests in Delhi may be a positive sign of a growing ecological awareness and the rise of environmental whistleblowers in the capital, there is still a long distance between local protests and general solutions. Moreover, while the agitation was commendable, one needs to sadly conclude that such middle-classes movements in the political center of the country are more likely to be noticed by the media and politicians than dozens of Chipko movements that took place in the jungles of India’s interior.