Where Are the Trees?: Activists Demand Accountability from Delhi's Forest Department

Activists and Delhi’s courts criticise the lack of replantation in the city’s Forest Department and allege that its implementing agencies are incentivised to fell trees because they profit from the auctioned sale of timber.

New Delhi: Environmental activist Padmavati Dwivedi pointed up at a slender black bird perched on a craggy tree top along Aurobindo Marg in south Delhi. “Look, you can see the myna,” she called out. “That bird used to sit in this tree too.”

She motioned down to a tree stump beside her – the first victim in a road-widening campaign halted after three days of protests and night vigils in early July.

Dwivedi’s small clan of environmental activists, united over WhatsApp, celebrated the victory with reservation. They said the incident was relatively small – only two trees out of the 30 planned were cut – but is indicative of a troubling tree-cutting trend that leaves the public with unanswered questions: where does the wood go, what happens to the money for replanting, and where are the trees?

Activists and Delhi’s courts criticise the lack of monitoring, public information and replantation by the city’s forest department, and allege that its implementing agencies are incentivised to fell trees because they profit from the auctioned sale of timber. Forest department officials agreed profiteering is a concern, but not to the extent that activists claim.

“We need to have audit authority on claims of tree plantation and green cover, and each and every penny that’s been used in the name of the environment,” Peepal Baba, an activist who has planted 1 crore trees all over India in the past 40 years, told The Wire.

He said that crores of rupees have poured into the department for tree planting, with little results. “If that money was spent, Delhi would be green by now,” Baba said. “This is not about environment, it’s about survival.”

Delhi was the 11th most polluted city in the world in 2016, according to WHO. Deaths due to air pollution in Delhi and Mumbai doubled over the last 25 years, accounting for 95% of premature demises in the two cities, a study by the Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay (IITB) reported in January.

Exposure to high particulate matter – particles that clog lungs breathing dirtied air – leads to fatal diseases. But trees help save lives: particulate matter was reduced between 7% and 24% near a tree, a 2016 study by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) revealed.

Activists decry the government and public’s inaction to address this public health crisis.

“There is no urgency by the city, by the people and no urgency by the government that there is pollution that is killing people and we need to protect trees, which are natural air filters,” said Aditya Prasad, a Delhi high court advocate.

Under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, everyone seeking to cut a tree must submit an application to the forest department and pay Rs. 36,000 as a security deposit for replanting ten times the amount of felled trees. If the trees are replanted within seven years, the forest department returns 50% of the money. Once approved, the department directs the relevant city agency to do the cutting.

In Delhi, more than 15,000 trees were cut in the past three years, according to the Union Ministry of Environment. The number dropped from 6000 in 2014-15 to 4600 in 2015-16, but rose in 2016-2017 when 4700 trees were felled.

In spite of cutting, Delhi’s green cover increased marginally from 20.08% in 2013 to 20.22% in 2015, according to the forest department records measured through satellite image.

“Lakhs have been cut but green cover has increased,” Tarun Johri, IFS Conservator of Forests told The Wire. “In spite of trees being felled, the green cover is increasing, which means that ten times compensation is happening.”

A senior official in the environment ministry who previously worked in the forest department said that the necessary checks and balances exist, but they’re not always implemented.

“We are not in a proper shape in Delhi,” he said. “They are helpless because it is a vast area and there is lack of infrastructure and less use of technology. There are very complicated situations and conflicts of interest and also land is very limited, so pressure is high.”

Workers cut timber at Nigambodh Ghat, Delhi’s largest crematorium, which burns 60-70 bodies a day, each consuming 400 kg of wood. Credit: Mallory Moench

Looking for wood

Multiple RTIs and high court orders have exposed gaps in the process of preserving Delhi’s trees. Provoked by a PIL on pollution, the Delhi High Court in March 2017 ordered a CAG audit of the forest department’s processes for tracking cut trees and compensatory money.

The audit is still ongoing, but Johri told The Wire that trees are numbered and tracked when permission is given for cutting. When asked whether the department follows up to ensure the agencies fell the correct number, he said: “Once in a while yes, they check.”

Activists said the monitoring isn’t sufficient. “There is no track on the movement of timber in Delhi,” said Sonya Ghosh, who filed an RTI in 2015 to try to find out where felled wood was going.

The government originally ordered that timber should be given to crematoriums free of charge for burning unclaimed bodies. But less than a year ago they reversed their order, allowing departments to auction trees, but still donate lops and tops, Johri told The Wire. 

“There is a reason why it should not be auctioned, because if the auction was there, maybe the people would have tried to sell the trees for its value,” he said. “That’s how it was decided to not encourage the felling of trees and give to crematorium. Why the decision was changed, the reason is not there, but probably would be to increase the revenues of the government.”

Chandrapal Chaudhary, a tree cutting supervisor in MCD’s North Division, said that the agency ensures all the receipts are kept in the accounts department to avoid corruption. But activists are skeptical that all income is on the books.

The profit from tree auctions varies. Activists said timber can fetch up to Rs. 10,000 per one cubic meter, meaning one tree could be worth a lakh, but Johri said it depended on the type. The definition of tree under the Delhi Tree Preservation Act is 15 cm girth and 1 meter high – meaning something as small as a rose plant might qualify.

Johri estimated that, for example if 800 trees were cut, 80% would be too small to sell, 15% would sell as firewood, and 5% would earn Rs. 10,000 to 20,000.

“People would say there is a scam, they cut 800 trees and they’re only getting Rs. 10,000, people have become corrupt, but that is not the case,” Johri said.

Chandrapal Chaudhary said MCD gives felled timber in the rare instance the crematorium contacts them directly.

“Nigambodh Ghat people have contacted us in the past and we have provided the wood to them,” he said.

But at Delhi’s largest crematorium, Nigambodh Ghat, where acrid smoke swirls like incense in the air, there is no such thing as free wood. The ghat burns 60 to 70 bodies a day, using 400 kg for each body, manager Rajinder Kashyap said.

In a yard beside the back gate, fresh felled timber rises in teetering piles. The wood yard manager, Raj Kumar, said the crematorium pays private contractors Rs. 550 per 100 kg of wood.

Nigambodh Ghat’s chief convener Suman Kumar Gupta confirmed none of it came from the city. “There is no free wood from the government,” he said. “Many times we tried with the government, but no action was taken.”

Workers cut timber at Nigambodh Ghat, Delhi’s largest crematorium, which burns 60-70 bodies a day, each consuming 400 kg of wood. Credit: Mallory Moench

Where are the trees?

The issue is not only tree cutting, though, but promises of replantation. Reports available on the forest department’s website only track how many trees have been cut and who made the requests, not whether trees have been replanted.

Advocate Aditya Prasad filed an RTI that revealed a spotty record from 2006 to 2010. Of the 30 applications approved to remove 65,241 trees, five corporations fully completed replantation, 17 partially completed and seven replanted no trees.

Tree cutters have seven years to replant, during which time the forest department keeps half the compensatory money “in case they do plantation and maintain for seven years and in case they ask for refund,” Johri said.

In Vasant Kunj, a recurring battleground for contested tree-cutting in south-west Delhi, residents filed a complaint against the Public Works Department (PWD) for illegally felling 267 trees in 2013. Padmavati Dwivedi said hundreds more were felled in the same area in June 2017 for a road-widening project. No trees have been replanted yet for either project, she added.

In September 2011, The Central Information Commission ordered that the forest department should make available the monthly locations of replantation and the environmental costs of development projects. But the order hasn’t yet been fully enforced and Aditya Prasad filed a Delhi high court PIL this year to pressure the department.

Workers cut timber at Nigambodh Ghat, Delhi’s largest crematorium, which burns 60-70 bodies a day, each consuming 400 kg of wood. Credit: Mallory Moench

Political will and public protest

Officials debate whether the Delhi Tree Preservation Act should be more strictly enforced or needs reform. The senior official from the environment ministry said the law was restrictive because it penalises for tree cutting instead of incentivising for tree planting, adding that you’ll be punished for wanting to cut a tree that you, or in his own case, his grandfather, planted.

Not all citizens are critical of the forest department’s work. Some want more trees cut in winter to get sunlight and more trees planted during summer to give shade, and others prioritise development over preserving trees.

A small band of seasoned activists on the front lines are not hopeful they’ll see change until the public pressures politicians.

“Until there is political will which translates into bureaucratic will and the contractors and the people who are going and cutting down the trees, then the whole system will continue,” Peepal Baba said. “Where will it come from? The masses. The community. The residents. They have to gang up and put pressure on politicians.”

They’re already starting: activist Radhika Bhagat initiated a petition in July to protest a plan to fell 1713 trees to make way for a new exhibition centre at Pragati Maidan. As of the publishing of this article, it had 475 signatures. The petition urged the public: “Here is your chance to take action about this situation by protecting the lungs of Delhi, the trees.”

Mallory Moench is an intern at The Wire.