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When a tree falls, Delhi shakes

Outraged, the people of Delhi have taken to the streets to protest against the felling of trees, 16,000-odd, for redevelopment of seven localities in South Delhi. Courts have stayed the massacre as of now. The struggle continues….

People of Delhi tend to fight for their rights while various agencies that run Delhi are in a perpetual conflict and some sort of a denial too. They took to the streets after being outraged by the infamous gang-rape in December 2012 that lead to change in the rape laws. This time they are protesting against the axing of trees for the redevelopment of seven government localities in South Delhi. A neo-version of the Chipko Movement — embracing the tree — was launched in Delhi by Save Tree SOS against the government’s move to cull thousands of trees to make way for a state-of-the-art residential complexes for bureaucrats.
Delhi, across the political spectrum, for and anti-establishment, joined hands to pressurise the government/s to stop cutting of tree and save Delhi from an imminent ecological disaster. Already, the city has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city of the world. The government is not deterred, all they doing is playing a blame game. Union Urban Development Minister Hardev Puri held the AAP government responsible for the decision, the latter also made similar accusations against the former.

The pretext is that there is shortage of accommodation for government employees in the capital. The scenario is not very different when it comes to the middle or working classes. The catalyst seems to have been the long list of waiting government officials for ‘eligible housing’. About two years ago, the Ministry of Urban Development moved a proposal for redevelopment of ‘existing old dilapidated housing colonies’ to augment the housing stock by making optimum utilisation of land resources as per Master Plan Delhi (MPD) 2021.

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The Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the redevelopment of seven General Pool Residential Accommodation colonies. The task for redevelopment of residential colonies was given to the NBCC, a blue-chip Navratna public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs — and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD).

The golden-yellow Amaltas that blooms during the summer and red Palash flowers that carpet Delhi’s roads in spring, Neem trees that purify air of severely polluted Delhi will have to give way for the proposed 25,000 flats to be built in seven government colonies in south Delhi. NBCC is handling Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar while CPWD will take care of Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Srinivaspuri and Mohammadpur.

The redevelopment project will cost around Rs 32,000 crore and the project will be ‘self-funded’, informs Anoop Kumar Mittal, CMD of NBCC. He also assured that trees are the “sacrifice that one has to make for development” but soon the “green cover in these residential localities will go up to 50-55 per cent, from the average of 14 per cent at present…1.5 lakh trees will be planted as per the government rule and another 50,000 trees voluntarily, by the NBCC and CPWD.”

However, as every child knows, it takes years for a tree to grow and bloom, and therefore these popular protests in the capital. NBCC is of the view that the protests are a false alarm as the green cover would be compensated 15 times. The project will be completed in five years in a phased manner.

However, it’s not just the tree count that matters. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder-director of of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, points out that the trees being felled are valuable old trees that have become integral to Delhi’s landscape. Also, it is possible to save trees while constructing buildings (read interview). Mittal, however, explains that change is the need of the hour as out of a total of 12,970 flats would be transformed into the most modern colonies, with 25,667 units with extensive green cover, sewage treatment plants, organised parking and other modern amenities like underground car parking for 70,000 cars.

The Delhi High Court isn’t convinced. Earlier this week, NBCC was barred from cutting further trees, (more than 1,000 trees have already been lost), till July 4. Mittal retorted, “People are now environment sensitive. We have to develop Delhi, not for 1-2 years but for 100-200 years. We have taken permission from the state government to cut trees and not from the Union environment ministry.”

Though the permission to cut trees may have come from the Delhi government as claimed by Mittal, it was his boss, the Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary DS Mishra, who justified the move stating, “Buildings have a life. All these seven old colonies need redevelopment. Their maintenance cost is very high and they are providing accommodation to less people. That is why the government decided that they will redevelop these seven colonies. We are breaking 12,000 houses and making 25,500 houses.”

So far, Sarojini Nagar, one of the seven colonies for the redevelopment plan, stands to lose the maximum number of trees, about 11,000 out of the 13,128 trees. People were out protesting as a thousand trees have already been done with. Despite the DHC stay, as pointed out by environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, felling of trees was going on in some parts of the city. In fact, he reported the matter to the Sarojini Nagar Police Station and insisted an FIR be registered.

“The SHO refused to file an FIR, saying he was not aware of any High Court ruling. I waited for more than two hours and was finally told that the police will first seek legal opinion,” Jha narrated his ordeal dealing with police and, out of sheer helplessness, wrote to Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain. Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) Romil Baaniya later acknowledged that he did receive

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a complaint from “an environmentalist.” Hussain, after receiving Jha’s complaint, despatched a letter to Anil Baijal, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, to revoke permission to cut trees.

Is government behaving like a real estate agency, desperate to undermine the High Court’s decision? Delhi Police also seems oblivious of its duties, Jha’s ordeal reveals. Trees are an existential issue. The authorities would do well to remember that people who will not sustain trees will soon live in a world that will not sustain people. This is particularly true for Delhi.

The tree felling controversy shows yet again that the Centre and Delhi government are not working in tandem for the good of Delhi. Just a week back, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was staging a nine-day-long protest at Lieutenant Governor (LG) Anil Baijal’s residence against non-cooperation of bureaucrats, and their absence at meetings called by state ministers. Many of the projects proposed by Kejriwal government has been languishing for LG’s approval as the latter is the ‘head of administrative power in Delhi’ as per the Delhi High Court order of August 2016.

Tug of war is on!

Now the proposed axing of 16,500 trees for the redevelopment of seven government colonies in South Delhi has created a widespread hue and cry. The High Court has stopped further cutting of trees till July 4, and a blame game has ensued. The Central and Delhi governments are blaming each other for the decision. In the process, one gets the feeling that people of Delhi are being treated as gullible, and taken for a ride.

It’s ironical and farcical at the same time. The central government seems so helpless when it comes to these unpopular moves, like clearing of foliage and removing of hawkers and peddlers from the streets of Delhi in the name of ‘sealing drive’. The BJP has shifted the blame on the Kejriwal government for it, even staged a protest outside his house. But when it comes to Delhi Police, DDA, status of full statehood to Delhi, or approving delivery of PDS ration at doorstep, or blocking populistic policies of the state government like keeping Metro fares stable, the LG and the Union government become fairly assertive.
There’s no denying the fact that this project is an initiative of the central government. It is for this reason that the ministry in charge of Delhi Development Authority — Urban Development under Hardeep Puri — was massively trolled on social media when he defended the project. His response on Twitter was: “I am a little surprised at the distortion around our city’s green cover” while explaining the grand afforestation plans to justify culling of older trees.

Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj tweeted, “IMPORTANT – The file about “Redevelopment Project” says Environment Clearance for the project has been approved by MoEF & CC, GOI (Minister- Dr Harshvardhan) vide letter dt 27.11.2017 @drharshvardhan ji, Did ur Department give Environment clearance to this project (sic)??.”
Union Minister of Environment and Forest Harsh Vardhan, however, holds the Kejriwal government “responsible for granting the permission to fell trees in non-forest areas” as “it is directly under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government and not governed by us.” While the Delhi government is adamant that clearance was given by the Union Ministry in November last year.

The Kejriwal government minced no words in saying it “will not allow” the cutting of 11,000 trees proposed for the redevelopment project at Sarojini Nagar. Delhi Forest Minister Imran Hussain even dispatched a letter to the LG putting his cards on the table. “…felling of trees may cause permanent loss, it is proposed that an immediate stoppage on further felling of trees in the GPRA (General Pool Residential Accommodation) colonies may be ordered till the issues are resolved.”
Hussain’s letter puts on record that the implementing agency for projects at Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Kidwai Nagar flouted National Green Tribunal (NGT) guidelines. Hussain also took the opportunity to put some blame on the department he heads, read bureaucrats. ‘There appears, prima facie, laxity on the part of the department in ensuring compliance of the various conditions/stipulations mentioned in the various notifications (by NGT). This calls for thorough enquiry or investigation into the matter.”

As is mostly the case, the matter, it seems, will be resolved by the court.