If Delhi’s Trees Could Speak, They Would Say – ‘Do You Know Who I Am?’

The glow of righteous protests is short-lived. What is needed is a long-term programme for developing a sustainable city.

In a happy-making initiative, the Delhi government has just introduced ‘Happiness’ as a subject in schools. Most of the components of happiness are free. And among them are trees and birds. There is a schoolboy who walks past my gate every morning while I am luxuriously drinking my tea and looking at the sunbirds on the Mexican silk-cotton outside my gate. But the schoolboy’s eyes are glued to his smartphone. He is blind to the beauty of the leaves sparkling in the morning sunlight; he is deaf to the chirrups of the birds. But I am sure his school has reacted to the latest disaster to hit poor Delhi.

Since 1976, we have got inured to reading every so often about hundreds of jhuggis (shanties) being demolished. And now thousands of birds’ nests have been demolished.

What do numbers mean? How many miles of pavement in south Delhi do 14,000 trees cover? How do we count the thousands of people who have been grateful for the patches of shade they create, the oases where a barber can set up a functioning saloon, where a welcome roast-bhutta stall can be conjured up, where banjara (nomads) children can improvise games with bits of wood and string, where women can rest their tired limbs before boarding the bus that takes them back to the second shift of work, in their own homes.

For car-borne middle-class south Delhi denizens in air-conditioned homes, trees are good things in a general sense, part of a vague, good thing called ‘the environment’. Most of the trees were planted by official authorities, and would be justified in being as snobbish as the civil servants whose homes they enfold in green glory. They should be able to say from their great height, “Do you know who I am?” – the one-liner of babus and politicians that paralyses us common folk. To their horror, they find they are suddenly being treated as ‘unauthorised’, felled with electric saws. Like jhuggis, they are defenceless against that terrifying and equally vague thing called ‘development’.

Each tree is assured that ten saplings will be planted somewhere sometime to compensate for its passing. Over 30 years ago, a senior official remarked cynically that Delhi should have become an impenetrable jungle if all the saplings planted by the lotus-hands of sundry VIPs on Van Mahotsav Day each year had grown to maturity. The government departments have dropped the hypocrisy of Van Mahotsav, the fancy spades and buckets left to rust. Now it is Van-mrityu Mahotsav that is celebrated. What are a few thousand trees against the dazzling prospect of a gigantic trade centre and a convention centre? Do not miss the entrance to New Kidwai Nagar. You enter through cement versions of the Sanchi Gateway, with not a tree to spoil the view! We look forward to the Gateway of India and the Buland Darwaza in New Netaji and New Sarojini Nagar!

The ‘nagars’ most affected by the massacre – Kidwai, Netaji, Lakshmibai and Sarojini Nagar – have enjoyed a quality of life which can be directly related to their pleasant ambience. What will be built in their place will eventually become a vertical slum. A few weeks ago, before the bulldozers moved in, Sulochana Subrahmanyam and other octogenarians took a walk through Netaji Nagar to say goodbye to a landscape, recalling their happy years there.

Last week, some citizens of Delhi did a well-publicised Chipko Act, and now the blame-game and the numbers-game are in full swing. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and, yes, the National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) will turn other parts of Delhi into little forests! While they are busy doing that, this moment should be seized to plan a long-term programme, for memories and the glow of righteousness are short-lived (whatever happened to the protest against the Dalmiafication of the Red Fort?).

Tree-lined avenue along the peripheral road at Asian Games Village, indicating the width of tree-line appropriate for roadside planting. Credit: Courtesy of Yogesh Kapoor, Shaheer Associates

Tree-lined avenue along the peripheral road at Asian Games Village, indicating the width of tree-line
appropriate for roadside planting. Credit: Courtesy of Yogesh Kapoor, Shaheer Associates

One can think of some ready suggestions for the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), the people of Delhi, and for Manish Sisodia. For its first 30 years, the DUAC reviewed building projects only; in 2005 Charles Correa made a landmark modification by adding ‘public spaces’ (he headed the DUAC from April 2005 to February 2008). The six years that the eminent landscape architect Mohammad Shaheer was a member of the DUAC, applicants dreaded the moment when he would ask them in a deceptively gentle voice for a ‘tree plan’ which showed the exact location and the girth of each tree. This should be mandatory, and the Commission should ensure that the trees are not killed in the dead of night – as was done, to the alarm of people in the neighbourhood, where the environment ministry (preserver or destroyer?) constructed its humungous new office near Lodhi Colony a few years ago.

As for the people Delhi, there is one suggestion – check the sports pages of newspapers, which is where major changes of land-use are announced, in fine print, in an obscure corner and in unintelligible officialese. At least six months before such drastic action begins, the agency should put up clear bilingual maps at the site indicating their plans, so that there is time for public reaction. I remember how, when the Bus Rapid Transit road was being laid out, no one had the least idea of what was going on. Car owners certainly did not realise they would have to wait while crowded buses sailed past. Battles in Delhi are not just between citizens and the officials. It is also between the aam aadmi and the lesser aam admi.

Finally, a suggestion for Sisodia – could the children of Delhi government schools plan a long-term tree-census, to parallel the electoral-roll count that their teachers are presently carrying out? This will not only be a very useful point of reference but also indicate the inequitable distribution of trees in Delhi – plenty for the gated colonies of the rich, none for the poor, as landscape architect Yogesh Kapoor of Shaheer Associates pointed out. He also explained the shrinking of the space given to roadside trees – in the 1930s, W.R. Mustoe, director of horticulture,  insisted on a three-metre tree-line in Lutyens’ New Delhi; this was decreased to 2.5 metres at the time of the Asian Games in the 1980s, and further reduced to 1.5 metres in the 2000s. Trees are being stifled in cement. Roads are frequently being widened, and there are no protests – wider roads help overweight cars. But they shrink the space for pedestrians and weaken the pavement trees.

Instead of those ‘prachin Shiv mandirs’ which spring up overnight on our roads and no-one dares remove, we could give the same sanctity to our ‘prachin bel/babool/amaltas’. Many of us won’t be here to see it, but I am confident that it is possible to bring back beauty and compassion to our city.

Narayani Gupta is a historian.