What Delhi Can Learn From Vellore

In 2004 I was deputed as Election Commission observer for Vellore, Tamil Nadu for the Parliament elections. One day the local DFO ( Divisional Forest Officer) called on me; I asked him about the rampant sandalwood smuggling in the state( Veerappan was active those days) and the steps taken by him to curb it. That evening he took me to a dense sandalwood grove of about two acres: I could not believe my eyes at what I saw! The whole copse was surrounded by a six strand barbed wire fence which was electrified. There were watchtowers with armed guards and floodlights at regular intervals. Seeing the shock on my pahari face the young officer explained: ” You see, sir, this is the last grove of sandalwood trees in the district, all the others have been felled by smugglers. We are taking no chances with these remaining trees.”

I was reminded of this little nugget from my past this week when I read a CAG report about the status of the green cover in Delhi, where the Veerappans appear to have been replaced by the much more dangerous officers of the Forest Department and the PWD. Veerappan took out only sandalwood trees; our officers, as befits their educated status, are not discriminatory in their plunder- they fell everything that grows. According to this report 13108 trees were felled in Delhi in the last three years( 2014-15 to 2016-17) for “development” projects- in a city that is gradually turning into an arid desert! Even worse, whereas 65095 trees were to have been planted as compensatory afforestation only 21048 were actually planted, a shortfall of 67%. From my experience in the Forest Deptt. in HP I can state with full confidence that the survival rate of planted saplings never exceeds 40% at best; in other words, of the 21000 odd saplings planted not more than 8000 will actually survive to their third year ( if they are not chopped down before that for another flyover or convention center, that is). The final picture, then, is this: 13000 trees felled, 8000 replaced. Even the replacements shall take decades to deliver any environmental values- and we just don’t have those decades before the Armageddon of climate change overtakes us.

There is an accumulating deficit then of 5000 trees every year. No wonder the tree cover of Delhi is a dismal 20.59% of its area, the dense forest figure is even worse- just 6.72 sq.kms in 2017, and declining every year. It is clear that the Delhi administration, particularly its Forest Deptt., has miserably failed to protect the green lungs of the city. Whatever protection is available is thanks to the Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court: without their vigilance the entire Ridge would have disappeared by now, occupied by godmen, fat cats, para military camps and farm houses; as it is almost 20% of the original Ridge has gone. But even these two institutions at times cannot appreciate the urgency of the need for preserving whatever few trees are left: witness the approval granted for felling 400 trees for a convention centre at at Pragati Maidan and another 1000 trees for another such building at Dwarka: it is unfortunate that on the 4th of this month the NGT dismissed a concerned citizen’s petition to save the trees at Dwarka.

Here is why the time has come to save each and every tree in our cities, especially Delhi which is already the most polluted city in the world. Even by the govt’s figures( which are suspect) the green cover of Delhi is just 20% of its geographical area which is 1400 sq. kms. The area occupied by parked motor vehicles alone- hold your breath- is 13% of the geographical area ! ( 10 million vehicles x 18 sq. meters= 180 million sq. meters=180 sq. kms.). Alarmingly, the green cover is going down every year while the motor vehicles are increasing by 10%, or 1 million cars per annum. In just five years or so there shall be more area under cars than under trees- and this does not even include the area under roads. Do we still want more convention centers at the cost of trees?

Look at it another way, from the benefits of trees as carbon sinks. An average, 10 year old tree with a diameter of 8 inches sequesters apprx. 50 pounds of carbon every year. The 13000 trees felled in the last three years would have sequestered 325 tonnes of carbon every year, or about 10000 tonnes over their lifetime. We have lost this for ever. And the average Delhi-ite just can’t be bothered; all he does is complain about pollution, heat, dust, floor area ratio and traffic jams while he happily chops down all the branches of that 100 year old neem tree because they obstruct the sunlight to his house, or proudly steps out to buy the latest SUV.

Back to Vellore. Maybe Delhi needs the Vellore approach to counter the Veerappans sitting in our govt. offices. Maybe the only way to save Delhi’s trees is to withdraw the 10000 cops on VIP duty and redeploy them to save the city’s vanishing green cover. We can live without politicians and bureaucrats, but not without trees.

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