Delhi’s Trees Deserve Better!

FirstPost did an interview with me on why Delhi’s trees need our help- and why trees are so important for cities.

 

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There are stories under every big Tree

Thorny shrubs, peripheral trees.

That’s the light cost of the redevelopment of Sarojini Nagar, best known for a thriving export-surplus market and government flats in various states of disrepair. According to form 1 and form 1A, required under the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2006, and submitted by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) for redevelopment – breaking down buildings to build new flats and malls would sacrifice very little, just a few “thorny shrubs”, some trees on the “periphery” of the project site and “no ecologically important flora or fauna species”.

The reality, however, is lushly different. These “thorny shrubs” and “periphery” trees amount to more than 11,000 mature trees, many of them native and naturalised species. In a city drugged on new spaces for real estate and more inches of shining, heat-absorbing concrete, what do ‘11,000 trees’ really mean?

A purple sunbird on an Amaltas tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

The streets of Sarojini are lined with Amaltas in blossom, large banyans and figs, known to be keystone species for their role in providing food sources to wild birds and mammals, and old sausage trees. A rapid biodiversity survey I undertook with a small team of naturalists revealed 26 bird, 11 butterfly and seven insect species, part of a thriving and productive urban ecology. Other year-round calculations, based on 22 bird lists, indicate there are 60 bird species at the site. The basis of these ecologies are mature trees of a variety of species that provide food sources. If the phenology of each tree species were to be represented by a string of fairy lights, the colony would be lit throughout the year.

It may be easy to overlook trees in a residential colony, although there are everyday stories under each old, big tree. Trees are used to pin boards up on, to make sheds and stalls under the canopy, to tack up lights for a wedding. Colony trees seem to just be there, part of a worn scenery and backdrop, like a well-used sofa, never really showstoppers. Trees that tend to be remembered and canonised are in places where the stranger tends to walk into them: on a main road, next to a monument, the crowning glory of a sweeping roundabout, a landmark that many will have used to give directions before Google Maps, at the centre of a botanical garden. You may remember a young banyan near your home – but when talking of banyans, most Indians will have recall value for the well-known, two-century old large tree in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in West Bengal.

A sausage tree blossoms. Credit: Neha Sinha

Colony trees are intimate. They brush against dreams and verandahs, filling garages with flowers and windshields with leaves, known only to those who walk residential lanes to reach home.

But the trees in Sarojini Nagar, misrepresented though they are as mostly thorny bushes, should not be overlooked.  While the NBCC seeks to cut 11,000 trees, the Delhi government said post-protests that it will not agree to this proposal. Hardeep Puri, the minister of state for housing and urban affairs first justified the decision, saying new saplings would be planted, but in the face of indignant resistance and a slew of court cases, he called for dialogue and meetings.

Black ants swarm around two flowers on the ground. Credit: Neha Sinha

The popularity of the relay protests perhaps took even the protesters by surprise. People hugged trees, sang songs, school students poured out, the trends #savedelhitrees and #delhitreesos were birthed, and petitions filed in the National Green Tribunal and the Delhi high court. In a city known for its apathy towards the environment as well as towards social causes, hundreds of people protesting for more than a month is certainly notable.

What is more notable is that people stood up for colonies they are not likely to stay in themselves: the housing in these colonies is only for government employees. Thus, the struggle is for the idea of Delhi as a well-planned place with large, old trees, rather than a Delhi of construction dust dealt with through new ornamental trees. It is also a protest against the disgusting noxious air that people have to breathe through the year, not just during the winter.

A female sunbird. Credit: Neha Sinha

The Sarojini Nagar redevelopment plan is at the heart of this protest. It is the bloated figure of 11,000+ cut trees that made the whole scheme too hazardous, too bitter a pill to swallow. The other figures for proposed tree-cutting are comparatively more tolerable: 2,490 trees in Netaji Nagar and 1,454 trees in Nauroji Nagar.

While this is not a good time to experience the urban biodiversity – in between intermittent monsoon rain – there is a lot to see in Sarojini Nagar. The last summer blossoms of Amaltas, an Indian species, carpet the ground in a florid, yellow sprinkle. Large, burgundy flowers of the sausage trees, named after its sausage-shaped pods, lay casually on the ground, trampled by buses and cycles.

A yellow-footed green pigeon is perched on a neem tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

We found mature fruiting trees, such as jamun and mango full of birds and squirrels. Yellow-footed green pigeons napped gently on neem and semal. Two types of barbet, the coppersmith and the brown-headed, looked for fruit against blindingly emerald, rain-washed leaves. Beetles, centipedes and black ants foraged in fallen flowers. Scores of species interactions were taking place in what can only be described as typical urban ecology.

Trees outside forests, interspersed with parks, parking lots, people and some level of manicuring, do not exist in a state untouched by the human hand. Rather, phenologies and inter-species encounters carry on as an interactive process, as in the case of Sarojini Nagar. The common myna are seen nesting on manmade poles and red-vented bulbuls perch on monkey bars. Indian robins use electric wires as perches to dive-bomb on to the unsuspecting dragonfly. There may be a gleaming purple sunbird behind a tangle of thick, careless wires. You may not notice the Alexandrine parakeet – ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red list – until it drops a piece of the sausage pod on your head. You may not crane your head to see the endangered Egyptian vultures that fly in the searingly hot sky above, which we saw a couple times. The human-wildlife interaction is neither forced nor keen; it carries on in forms of suffused interest or benign neglect. That is the nature of urban ecology.

An Alexandrine parakeet feeds on the sausage tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

As one can guess and as the survey showed, the central nervous system of this paradise is old trees, sprawling through the sky as they age, sinewed with vines forming distinct layers of undergrowth where purple sunbirds, tailorbirds and flocks of oriental white-eyes forage and nest. Perhaps these are the “thorny shrubs” being referred to in the project papers. Apart from the trees, a second kind of habitat type in the area is patches of grass on pavements, where butterflies lay eggs.

But butterflies can’t stop projects.

Why then must one pause for these micro-habitats?

A gram blue butterfly. Credit: Neha Sinha

The point that Delhi needs more trees has been historically well made, repeatedly, and through protest and petition both. It is the death of irony that the world’s most polluted city should think of cutting mature trees that provide oxygen and relief from noise and dust. It also verges on the funny that this is being done with the excuse of planting more saplings, which will take decades to become trees, by which many of those protesting may well have shifted cities. The moot point really is of governance and fake news; for example, why are 11,000 trees being described as thorny shrubs or peripherals?

As planners figure that one out – in the face of surprising civilian and judicial action – one thing is clear: there really is a story under every old, big tree.

This first appeared in The Wire.

Floods in a desert

A desert that is flooding– leaving psychological and livelihood scars, and a people trying their best to endure these hardships. Ladakh is beautiful, brutal, and blemished by climate change.

Poster

 

Arching over the white Phuktal river in Ladakh’s Zanskar valley—which is dotted with white-water rafting enthusiasts—is one bridge that the village of Neyrags calls its own.

For centuries, the villagers say, they have had a bridge. People took pictures of its stout structure, which appeared permanent in its reliability, and over-arching in its craggy height. Elders told youngsters how they did not know when the bridge was built. For the people of Neyrags, the bridge, non-motorable as it is, was a vital link to the world outside their valley.

Earlier this year, the river carried away this structure, carrying off wood, stone and clay, all in one angry day. The incident happened in a flash but it was in itself a predicted event, a chronicle foretold—repeatedly, loudly, and in vain.

The Neyrags bridge was one among 11 other bridges to be snatched away in a day, on May 7, in the remote Zanskar valley. But the river had given warnings that never reached Delhi.

In December, a landslide created a natural dam on the river. A resultant lake was formed: deep, frozen, and formidable. Locals predicted it was likely to burst if the dam was not broken. While the mountains and gorges of Ladakh look permanent, people stress that this is a landscape that is constantly shifting. The land often converts to landslides and mudslides, especially when it rains. The combination of two elements—water and terra firma—in one sliding, heaving motion is deadly.

Led by engineer and social activist Sonam Wangchuk, citizens and farmers first suggested the dam be broken gently with jets of water, to prevent more landslides and flooding.

“All the farmers of Ladakh know Ladakhi soil is very loose, very dry,” Wangchuk says. “If we suddenly try to create a passage for water, through blasting or explosions, the flow of the water over this soil would be uncontrollable.”

When a team from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reached Ladakh in April, they decided to use explosives anyway. Using blasting techniques, a narrow canal was created, which was videographed as a success story.

In the beginning, all seemed well. Then, as predicted, the lake burst on May 5, inundating over 20 villages, of which Neyrags was one.

The people of Neyrags, a village both windy and remote, never had it easy even with a bridge. After crossing it they have to walk four hours to reach the main road. From this road, vehicles ply and cell-phones work. The high, narrow bridge is therefore the artery of life.

When this artery was cut, the village went back in time. Donkeys and livestock which carry essential rations were stranded, and many were left starving. Colleges and schools on the “other side” remained unattended. People wondered what to do, because no one remembered how to make a bridge again. Food was running out.

“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.

“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.”

All he knows is that no cement was used.

About 20 days after the flood, the government provided a rope-pulley system for people to cross. It wasn’t enough. Donkeys and mules, essential carriers of essential items, still could not cross. Schools and many other buildings remained broken and needed attention. The new structure itself seemed rickety, and the dizzying drop to the river below seemed fatal.

Taking their destiny—and their lives—into their own hands, the people decided to make their own bridge. A meeting was held with the elders.

“You know, in Ladakh we always see natural calamities. Like you city people see traffic,” says Tsewang Namgyal from Neyrags. “In winter, snow avalanches come in our village. And we have seen a lot of rainfall in the past few years. But even then, we didn’t think we would lose our bridge. It was about six storeys high. Can you imagine how angry the water was, to take away something six storeys high?”

The village meeting led to the formation of smaller parties of people. Each day for about two months, 25 people worked. While bridge-making is not part of inherited memory, people did have a lot of photographs of the structure. They also had raw material, from the same mountains that rained debris down on them. Rock, wood and clay were procured from surrounding areas and mountain ranges. Most of the stone and clay was chiselled with hammers from mountains, in small teams, so that rocks could slowly be carried back.

Muddy rivers barren slopes
Muddy rivers, barren slopes. Ladakh.

A hunt was launched for dry poplar beams, which was easier to carry than trees with crowns. A remarkable crowd-funding programme was started. People started building from both ends, using log beams and stone that layered onto each other.

After two months of work, the bridge, made to withstand weight of 250 kilograms, opened on August 2. The first to cross was the deputy sarpanch of the village. Then a troop of children crossed. Finally, a bunch of donkeys crossed over to bring supplies. The artery was flowing again, and tiny Neyrags was back on the map.

If the people of Neyrags could stoically and cheerfully build their own bridge—cheating death, isolation, and the clenched fist of destiny—it is because Ladakhis appear to be somewhat adjusted to the hardships they expect to face. The hardships, unfortunately, are many.

In 2010, this high-altitude dry desert and favoured tourist destination hit national headlines for a “flash flood”. Over 250 people and around 25,000 livestock were reported dead. Since 2010, Ladakh has been flooded many times. Water has swirled into houses, carried away cows and goats, bitten off chunks of fields, and washed bridges away. The high altitude desert is experiencing weather patterns that are harder to predict and even harder to live with.

Somehow, unfairly and consistently, this has escaped the country’s attention.

***

stream erosion
Rivers are a lifeline and also dangerous- biting off chunks of fields.

Rainfall and cloudbursts, in unpredictable and varying amounts, have led to floods in a desert. In the past five years, villages in Ladakh have been flooded. The rainfall data for Leh for July and August vary hugely over different years.

June 2011 recorded rainfall of 0.3 millimetre (mm). This tripled in June 2012 to 3.9 mm, and tripled again in June 2014 to 6.5 mm. In August 2014 too, the patterns were unpredictable: in 2010, rainfall was an all-time high at 9.6 mm, leading to the region’s worst flood. In 2011, the rainfall was 9.5 mm. In August 2012, the rain was much less at 2.6 mm.

The 2010 flood was caused by rain over just one day: August 6. On that day, over 12 mm of rain fell all over Ladakh, including Leh, just short of 15 mm which is the average for the entire month of August. This is not a lot for other parts of India, but was a cataclysmic disaster for Ladakh’s dry, unconsolidated soil.

Over the same soil, livestock forage and crops are grown,  the mainstays of the economy. From these occupations, captivating crafts have evolved. The fresh vegetables of the area—potatoes, peas, carrots—feed many. The famous pashmina shawls of Kashmir procure their pashmina—the hair of a high-altitude goat—from the snowy pastures of Ladakh.

For a long time, farmers and shepherds thought they could count on the predictability of life’s hardships. In Miru village, Tsering Namgial shears his pashmina goat, all the while singing to it, while his scissors move.

Phutphuphutphuloogoloogo,
Ayilumpephuna,
Kachuplungchuptangdup,
Shankukhamaryungduk,
Logo khushiyarzyahe
.”

This is a song to make the goats alert, it tells the goat that it is beautiful, but it is also a warning: asking the goat to beware of the mountain, snow and wolves in the snow, says the farmer. “If I don’t sing to my goat while shearing him, he will get bored. I am not only singing to him but also giving him strength against all that he has to face.”

But traditional songs address traditional threats. There are new problems now. “The rain, it rains anytime now, and the pastures and fields are under threat,” he says.

DSC05607
Goatherds shearing their pashmina goats. I take notes.

The people of the desert are not used to seeing so much rain. Fields are on the banks of mighty rivers like the Indus and Zanskar, and smaller canals run through many others. In the desert, almost all fields are ploughed near sources of water. None of this prepares the farmer for floods which turn fields into flood plains. Miru village is on the Leh-Manali highway, just a couple of hours from Leh. The highway itself, like many roads in Ladakh, curves adjacent to the river.

Last year, Miru was flooded, from a reported glacier lake outburst. This is clearly a trend. The first ever census of glacial lakes in the Himalayas, published in Global and Planetary Change journal, finds that glacier lakes are expanding in the Himalayas. The census found 4,981 lakes in the Indus systems. The study finds these lakes significantly increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

After last year’s flooding, this year, too, the people of Miru rallied together under a cloudburst. Following about 10 minutes of constant rainfall, villagers gathered in the community hall, made of ply and wood. Outside, in the blinding rainfall, a group of people were pointing and shouting. Someone’s cow was stranded near a swelling canal, and the people strategised, over shouts, to rescue it.

Cell phones don’t work in the village, and despite a highway, the fear of isolation is real. The community hall’s roof leaked, but villagers felt the hall was safer than their own houses, which are made of mud and clay.

For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.

For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.

Fifty-year-old Rigzen Lahadol lives in Gya village, also on the Manali highway. Whenever it rained, people moved to the top of the mountain. “When the flood came, we were sleeping. The water came all around us, and we were not prepared,” she says.

With frequent evacuations, people are better prepared today but they are not comfortable. Many families have men working in the army while the women stay behind. In the 2010 flood, 35-year-old Tsewang Dorjey who works in the army, was posted in Lebanon. His wife, Dachen Dokler, two young children, and elderly mother were sleeping in their mud house in Miru when the flood came. The family was sleeping in the kitchen, on the first floor of their house, which is surrounded by agricultural fields.

“There is snow in the winters, and now, rain in the summers. But when we shut the windows to go to bed, we assume we will be fine. But in 2010, we woke up to find water everywhere,” says 65-year-old Tashi Angmo, Tsewang’s mother. At that time, all she could think of was to grab her grandchild’s leg and make for the highest point in the village—a mountain, dripping and shaken to the core.

Tashi Angmo and family
Tashi Angmo with her family in their kitchen.

This year, rainfall in July-August brought even urban areas to a standstill. In Baltal, a huge landslide brought traffic on the Leh-Srinagar highway to a halt for three days, impeding movement to Kargil, the venue for the national celebrations of Vijay Diwas on July 26. In the first week of August, the Leh airport was closed for a day as an unforeseen event happened: rain caused the tarmac to be covered by debris, even in the middle of Ladakh’s largest city.

The Leh-Manali road had landslides in a reported 100 spots. “Yeh jannat hai, aur jahannum bhi (this is heaven, this is also hell),” says my Kashmiri driver about Ladakh.

Heaven and hell is a good way to describe the towering but bare, fragile mountains, and the life-giving but furious, torrential rivers. In the shade, the cold can give you frostbite. And in the sun, the high-altitude, blinding white light adorns beautiful pale Ladakhis with premature wrinkles.

The windswept, severe landscape can bring loneliness and overwhelm people trying to carve a modest living under nature’s stern eye. The area does not naturally allow the growth of trees. If trees are planted, they have to be watered and cared for in summer, and frequently de-thawed in winter, else they will not grow.

And yet, villagers have worked together, bound by a strong community feeling and shared purpose—making this great desert hospitable. A few years ago, the concept of artificial glaciers was conceived by engineer Chewang Norphel. The idea was to store water in the winter before it ran off down Ladakh’s bare slopes. The concept was later modified by Sonam Wangchuk.

Using pipelines, water is stored, using the principle that water will have the same level inside a pipe. In winter, as it emerges from the pipe, the water freezes over in a conical shape, forming what the villagers now call “ice stupas”.

“In Ladakh, we are at the mercy of the mountains, the sun, the temperature. If you were to ask people here what the temperature is, they may not be able to tell you. They will just say ‘very cold, very hot’,” says Stanzin Dorjai, who was once a shepherd and is now an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. “In Ladakh, money is of no consequence for living with nature. Money can’t help you when it floods, or when you have to grow crops.”

Yet Dorjai feels the people of Ladakh don’t get their due, and there is no institution-building to equip them. “The students of Ladakh study about Kashmir, not Ladakh. They grow up feeling that perhaps their way of life is inferior, not so good.”

Others echo a deep sense of bipolarity that outsiders have towards Ladakh. One of those bipolarities is through the armed forces and border security units. Straddling two international borders—China and Pakistan—makes Ladakh a station for armed forces. The peripheries though, are skewed. Villages like Miru and Gya are on the national highway but have no mobile connectivity.

It is with a fair amount of bitterness that Leh-based Karma, who deals in construction, speaks. “In a border village, different agencies fall over themselves to make roads and repair bridges,” he says. “After the 2010 flood, areas of strategic importance had the army and the Border Roads Organisation competing to make roads. Leh is a strategic area and was repaired pretty quickly. But nobody gives a thought for other villages, which are not strategic links—like the ones in the Zanskar valley. In the last strategic village, Shayuk, a gymnasium has been made for the people! Why should a few villages get it all, and others, absolutely nothing?”

A gymnasium seems like a cruel joke for people from other villages, who toil all day in Ladakh’s thin air. Anybody who visits Ladakh would know that the last thing the villagers need is a gymnasium.

woman peeps out of mud house Miru
A woman looks out from her window in Miru village.

***

The larger question is: why does the outside world not listen to the sentiments of the villagers, or pay heed to their knowledge? This year’s Zanskar flood is an example. “Not only did we make representations to NDMA and political leaders, we also asserted again and again that we know the soil we are talking about, and that blasting the soil would lead to a flood. Nobody listened to us. The NDMA still thinks they did a fine job, and they averted a disaster. They spent a lot of money on helicopter hopping, but not in listening to local knowledge. Because of their bungle, many villages are still cut off today. What were the crores spent for?” Wangchuk says.

Indeed, the flood is not counted as a natural disaster. Since there was no direct human mortality on the day of the flood—one person died later while trying to cross a damaged bridge—the flood is not considered a tragedy. In a sense the incident this year is like many other climate-change impacts that Ladakh is facing, which don’t get quantified.

Given the new flood situations people are facing, some believe young people need to document and communicate the new areas being forged by water. Tashi Morup, 42, from the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation wants to school students and village youth to set up water monitoring systems. “We have held two workshops. We want to teach students video and photo documentation, also with the hope that these new techniques will make them interested in the agricultural pasts of their forefathers,” he says.

Villages so far have had churpan, traditional water-harvesting systems in which designated watchers saw that water was channelised equitably between villages. Now, with too much water coming too soon, the roles of water-watchers will need to change. Many feel that the greatest impacts of the floods are psychological—people still cannot believe the desert is flooding. In the harsh climate, losing income is common. But losing lives and livelihood to water, even after witnessing several floods, is not.

For most of India, Ladakh is about motorcycle trails, pious Buddhist people, good food, and a certain landscape which is forbidding in its beauty. The concept is to visit Ladakh in summer months, and leave before high altitude sickness hits, or before the climate
takes a toll.

The idea that an entire culture and people are heaving under climatic change has still not struck the Indian consciousness. Whether Ladakh is going through climate change in scientific terms or not can be debated. But what cannot be debated is the fact that people are suffering weather-related, grievous losses.

Despite the hardships, the people still think about living lives of piety, and try taking their hardships in their stride. For instance, when Phyang village flooded in both 2010 and this year people rushed to the 600-year-old monastery, built on a high hill, believing that they would be high, safe and dry. Llama Rigzin Dorje was nine when he first came to Phyang monastery. “Twelve people from this area died in the flood of 2010. By the grace of god, no one died this time,” he says.

Phyang monastery.JPG
Phyang monastery

He remembers the landscape when he was a boy. “It snowed a lot more before. We used to put plastic sheets on the slopes, and slide down. Water used to freeze over in containers inside rooms,” he says, adding that while Ladakh is still similar to his memories, now it does not snow so much.

“Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”

“Outsiders come to Ladakh because it’s beautiful. But they also come because of the people. People still have a strong sense of unity and community here. This I am proud of,” Dorjai says. “Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”

 

This first appeared in Fountain Ink.

Trees of Delhi.

In Sarojini Nagar, on a fully grown Amaltas tree, this is what I spotted.

A Purple Sunbird using its delicate tongue to find nectar from the hearts of the last Amaltas blooms.

 

sunbird nectar

 

The circle of life.

The function of a mature tree: calling little wings and hearts to it.

sunbird
A Purple Sunbird drinks nectar from an Amaltas Flower

 

A mature tree is like a monument. It is like a mother. It feeds, protects, extends its arms to little creatures. And to us.

The Trees of Delhi don’t need us.

We need them.

 

Sausage Tree Blossoms
Sausage tree blossoming in Sarojini Nagar.

 

There are proposals to cut down 14,000 mature trees in Delhi.

But a tree is a form of civilisation – and as we develop plans for the city, the people of Delhi have come together to say cutting mature trees is no longer an option.

 

Alexandrine Parakeet Feeding Sausage Tree
Alexandrine Parakeet eating from Sausage tree pods.

 

The way forward has to be around the trees, not without them.

Can an Urban Chipko Save Delhi’s trees?

Civic authorities want to cut 14,000 trees in the capital but a pro-tree citizen movement is standing strong.
See the pictures for the kinds of trees we will lose!

Urban Chipko That Can Check Delhi From Another Environmental Apocalypse
Coppersmith Barbet on Subabul tree.
PHOTO: NEHA SINHA

Childhoods in India are often about trees. There are tales of summers at a favourite nani’s place shaded with mango trees, or being asked to pluck kadi patta from the tree on the front porch, or waiting for jamun fruit in a deliciously short spell just before the monsoon.

For children in Delhi, these experiences have managed to remain—chiefly because the city has marketed and marked itself as one of the greenest capitals in the world.

Not much longer, it seems. The redevelopment of several government housing colonies in the heart of South Delhi will see thousands and thousands of trees to be cut—over 14,000.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon on Neem tree with blossoms.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

Being billed as “redevelopment” of government houses, trees will be cut in Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar. Consider the figures. As per documents accessed by this writer, these are the tree felling permissions granted by the Ministry of Environment and forests and Delhi lieutenant governor: over 2,490 trees in Netaji Nagar, 1,454 trees in Nauroji Nagar. In Sarojini Nagar, more than 11,000 trees are proposed to be cut, though final permissions may be on hold.

Now, let us consider the other environmental apocalypse Delhi is in the middle of. The city is India’s most polluted. In May and June, Delhi was racked by dust storms, which were far dustier and stormier than anyone expected, taking lives in the city and North India. There seems to be a desertification problem we are faced with. And like incoming tsunamis on coastlines, it is trees that can protect us.

Environmentalist Manoj Mishra suggests trees act as windbreaks. For the rampant problem of pollution, several studies show trees absorb air, noise and dust pollution.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon on Peepal Tree.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

Why then should making new buildings come at the cost of trees?

According to Manju Menon, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, the Central Environment Ministry must revoke these approvals and review the commercial and government housing priorities of this project based on the environmental values of these trees and other ecological aspects of Delhi. “We don’t have to make a choice between development and environment. Both as within our reach,” she adds. “It is important to demonstrate this start this in the heart of South Delhi, one of the least densely populated areas. If trees cannot have space here, then where else can they?”

The other issue is what say people have for the city they call home. For the past many days, citizens of Delhi—including those who don’t live in Sarojini Nagar and nearabout—have been standing, singing and walking in demonstrations and protests. Most feel cutting trees in Delhi is no longer an option. Protesters are calling it an urban Chipko. Petitions have also been filed in the National Green Tribunal and the Delhi High Court.

“A massive redevelopment project like this should have had wider citizen debate and suo motu disclosure by the government, before any approvals were granted,” says Kanchi Kohli, environmentalist who works on environmental governance. “This is the hallmark of good governance, even if public interface was not legally required. A city that is already battling air pollution does not need to see its green spaces and old growth trees succumb to real estate design that drastically alters the land use.”

The protests have been met with annoyance. While the clearance letters prominently display the number of trees to be axed Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Puri has called the protestors “mischief-mongers”. He has also said: “there will not be one tree less than there are today and the green cover will be threefold (sic).”

The practical question, though, is: where will the trees be planted? While some of the clearance conditions say the plantation will be done on Yamuna flood plains, that does not help the micro climate of South Delhi. Saplings cannot and do not replace the ecological and aesthetic services provided by fully grown trees. And if we take a look at Delhi’s compensatory tree plantation record, the picture is anything but green. For more than 65,000 trees Delhi forest department had to plant as compensation for other cut trees, only 21,000 were planted, according to a CAG Audit.

As of now, the Delhi High Court has called for a stay on tree cutting—though there are reports the trees are still being felled.

Rosy Starlings on Semal tree.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

As Delhi struggles to breathe, will a collective citizen voice—trying to pierce the dust, smoke and apathy- change the fortunes of our wooded, silent friends, the trees? Hopefully, the earth will no longer shake in Delhi by great trees falling.

This first appeared in Outlook.

Stork beak locked in plastic- and we are to blame.

A rescue team near Gurgaon is looking for an unusual subject – a black-necked stork unable to open its mouth, as it has a plastic ring around its beak.

Images of wildlife with plastic fatally stuck to them are becoming increasingly common. There are marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, there are albatross chicks dying with bellies chock-full of plastic, there are whales and elephants dying agonisingly with plastic bags in them.

The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the ring. The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the plastic ring. Photo: Manoj Nair

Who would write obituaries for these ancient races filled with symbols of the modern age? The wildlife die unloved, unmourned, detected on coastlines and forest areas, in various stages of decomposition — and only if someone finds them. Most importantly, they die because of us.

Many of these animals are found in remote locations — islands, tiger reserves and coastlines and thus, it doesn’t seem like our problem. At least two things in the case of the stork show us this is our problem.

Firstly, Basai Important Bird Area (IBA) is in our backyard — Gurgaon — and shows the devastating impacts of plastic waste. Ironically, we are in the middle of a Clean India movement, and on World Environment Day on June 5, PM Modi called for an end to single-use plastic.

Secondly, this incident proves just how badly our natural areas are treated. Wetlands become wastelands, and rivers become sewage drains. I wrote earlier how some of Delhi’s biodiverse wetlands, Basaiand Najafgarh, are under imminent threat.

A construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetland, something the Delhi Bird Foundation has been fighting against in the National Green Tribunal. Not only does Haryana not recognise Basai as a wetland, making a waste plant near this wetland is likely to have terrible impacts on the biodiversity – such as debris, further water pollution, wetland dumping and filling.

marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/FileMarine turtles have been found with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/File

The stork with its beak encased in a plastic ring is just an early sign of what litter and pollution tragedies take place when waste is dumped in wetlands and wildernesses.

Birders from NCR and the Haryana forest department have been trying to rescue the stork, which is doomed to die without intervention. “The bird was spotted today but could not be caught. There is a huge mountain of plastic bottles dumped next to the wetland,” says naturalist and birdwatcher Abhishek Gulshan. Till June 11, a team comprising conservationist Rakesh Ahlawat and the Haryana forest department were still looking for the bird.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Commission of Gurgaon has asked the company that dumped the bottles to immediately clear the area.

The problem of haphazard and harmful municipal waste dumping and management in NCR though, is far from over. Plans to make a landfill site on the Yamuna river plain, near Sonia Vihar, are afoot.

This could be yet another way of ensuring plastic and leachates reach our gravely imperilled Yamuna river. The problem is the colonial mentality—which saw wetlands (which did not earn revenue) as “wastelands”. Dumping in wetlands also dries up the area, leading to encroachment.

Plastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/filePlastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/file

“Wetlands are not wastelands awaiting “development”. Dumping of municipal solid waste and debris has been the most insidious way of reclaiming the wetlands by vested interests. Plastic is the latest despoiler. The sad plight of the stork is a tight slap on the face of civilised humans. If only the stork too could poke our faces!” says Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, and petitioner in several cases for river and wetland rejuvenation.

Less than a week ago, PM Modi had said on World Environment Day: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”

What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTIWhat is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTI

One of the ways to do this is to cut down on plastic trash by not using plastic bags (the kind you’d find in a whale or elephant’s stomach), plastic can holders (whose rings you may find around a bird, dolphin or turtle’s neck or mouth), and plastic straws (found recently inside the nose of vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles), to name a few.

That’s on the individual level.

On the collective level, we have to make our waste — and how it is dealt with — an election issue. No more can our waste go into “wastelands”, “behind the colony”, “in that pond” or “next to that river”. These are not places for our waste. The idea is not just to get waste collected from our doorsteps but to ensure they don’t poison our last wild places and to place accountability for these urgent public health issues. What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste?

Poisoning our last wildernesses — which have their own range of ecosystem services — would be like putting a plastic bag over our heads as we roam about in NCR’s critically polluted “air”.

Meanwhile, a stork awaits its fate — metaphorically holding its breath, without opening its mouth.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here

Trees of Storm: How we can prevent trees from falling

“On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, the weather took an odd turn in Delhi,” writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement.

“I had just passed a busy intersection called Maurice Nagar when I heard a rumbling sound somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction… [later] I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld. Buses lay overturned; scooters sat perched on treetops; walls had been ripped out of buildings, exposing interiors on which ceiling fans had twisted into tulip-like spirals.” This is Ghosh’s description of a cyclone which hit North Delhi in the 1970s, leaving 30 dead and 700 wounded.

The feeling of devastation may sound familiar to those who faced and survived the recent surge of dust storms in North and Western India. “Dust storms” usually are not synonymous with death — that understanding is reserved for floods and earthquakes. But consider the figures: 125 people died in a dust storm on May 3. In a fresh round of dust storms on Sunday, May 13, more than 60 people died in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Yet another dust storm came today, in the wee hours of May 16. Damage was caused by a slew of frequently occurring and common factors — collapsed buildings, collapsed poles, lightning, falling trees.

del-body_051618123704.jpgA palm tree trunk came crashing down on cars during Sunday’s dust storm in New Delhi. [Credit: PTI photo]

Through the dust storms, 189 trees fell in Delhi, though the actual numbers must be higher. The Metro also had to halt functioning because a tree fell on it, and cars and property was damaged. It doesn’t take much to comprehend that falling trees can damage property and injure people. What can we do about it? The short-sighted answer would be to declare trees as dangerous and further confine ourself to a hellish, short-on-oxygen city. The more intelligent answer to explore is: how do we prevent trees from falling?

The question is even more important as we are in a lived state of climate change, where baselines of what are normal is shifting: what Ghosh calls the “great derangement”. Dust storms for instance, are often caused by heat waves, which are caused by a changing climate. So, expect more storms. Also, expect an unchanging storm of denial on the change we are in the middle of.

bada-peelu-1_051618123812.jpgA Bada Peelu tree at the Qutub complex. A slow growing tree, this one must be centuries old. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

In Delhi, studies say trees are stressed. In fact, the NDMC even runs a tree ambulance. The Delhi High Court has said soil should be left free around tree roots, at least to an extent of six feet by six feet, and all trees concretised around roots should be dechoked. But this is not followed, particularly in colonies and newly made footpaths. Orders often turn to farce — so while some colonies have made complaints and asked municipalities to come and break concrete around trees, in other parts of Delhi, newly made roads and pavements continue to cover tree roots. Pouring concrete right up to tree roots is a classic clash of the urban ethic encountering the wild — it yields a few more inches of neatness, land grab, and parking space. What it may also lead to though, is a fallen tree, destroyed property and a destroyed arboreal inheritance.

A major part of Delhi’s character is its trees. You have feathery-leaved, stately Tamarind trees flanking Tilak Marg, gold-blossomed Amaltas on Amrita Shergil marg, quirky Sausage trees on Copernicus Marg, Semal trees in Humayun’s tomb, gnarly and ancient Bada Peelu trees in the Qutub complex, young Banyans on some central verges, old Neems in the NDMC avenues.

crowded-semal_051618123907.jpgA Semal tree, concretised up to its roots in South Delhi, still throws up some blossoms. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

We urgently need to decongest the area around trees. We need to desist careless lopping of canopies in monsoon or winter, because that disbalances the tree. You too have the power to create change — in places where the tree is choked by concrete, you can call your local divisional forest officer or Delhi’s Tree helpline and place a complaint.

Indeed, such complaints have led to action. Delhi’s Preservation of Tree Act, 1994, restricts the cutting of any tree without requisite permissions. And if permission is granted to cut trees, the Tree Act also says more trees need to be planted: “Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to fell or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the tree officer.”

With rising, apocalyptic air pollution, trees are a natural buffer we will literally choke without. And with heat wave conditions, we need the shade of trees to create temperature gradients. In Delhi’s temperature extremes, it is not even possible to stand at a red light if you don’t have a tree’s shade giving asylum from the maddening heat. People always say that the fury of nature are acts of God — at least now we know much of it is human-induced climate change.

Even interpreting weather is not fully in our control. The government declared May 8 as an evening school holiday based on predictions by the Met department, which said that there was possibility of thunderstorm, squall or hail, “with winds to the tune of 50km per hour”. That day, no major storm came to most of Delhi. The WhatsApp joke doing the round was that children were running around in the house at a speed faster than the predicted wind speed. We don’t know when the storms will come — but we certainly know they will.

And as time progresses, we will all become familiar with words like squall and dust storm. Trees of Delhi will become storm survivors. The time to protect and dechoke trees is now, now, now.

And while de-choking trees doesn’t mean trees will never fall, allowing them to remain choked, in the face of hail, squall and storm, means they certainly will.

This first appeared in my column in DailyO

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

Tailorbird (3)
Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

Grey Hornbill Semal Apr 2
Grey Hornbill on Semal.
RRP Flock Takeoff Apr 2
A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30.jpg
The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

It’s World Water Week. Why India’s new Wetland Rules have it all wrong.

The 2017 Wetland Rules limit monitoring and omit important wetland types

Earlier this year, a judgment by the Uttarakhand High Court, stating that Ganga and Yamuna rivers are “living entities”, captured the national imagination. It is worth noting that wetlands, the other major water-based ecosystem apart from rivers, are at a moment of policy transition in the country. This year, a new legal framework for wetlands was passed, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, replacing the earlier Rules of 2010. Also this year, the Supreme Court passed an order directing States to identify wetlands in the country within a stipulated timeframe.

Going forward

DSCN1213 (4).JPG
Sambar and Chital at a stream in Pench Tiger Reserve.

The 2017 Wetland Rules have been criticised for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types. At the same time, the Supreme Court order directs States to come forward and notify wetlands. What then could be the way forward?

The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasise that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. ‘Ecological character’ refers to processes and components which make the wetland a particular, and sometimes unique, ecosystem. For example, as lagoons like Chilika (Odisha) and Pulicat (Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh) are characterised by a mix of saline and fresh water, the flows of each type need to be maintained; river flood plains contain wetlands that require conservation so they can re-fuel the river with fish and other aquatic life during flooding.

In the 2010 Rules, some related criteria were made explicit, such as natural beauty, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, historical value, etc. These have been omitted in the 2017 Rules. There are a few reasons why this is problematic. First, there is multiple interest around wetlands. Multiple interests also have governance needs, and this makes it absolutely necessary to identify and map these multiple uses. Leading on from this, and second, it is crucial to identify ecological criteria so that the wetlands’ character can be maintained. The key to wetland conservation is not just understanding regimes of multiple use — but conserving or managing the integrity of the wetland ecosystem. Finally, restriction of activities on wetlands will be done as per the principle of ‘wise use’, determined by the State wetland authority. Whether wise use will include maintaining ecological character remains to be seen. Under the new Rules, no authority to issue directions, which are binding in nature to desist from any activity detrimental to wetland conservation, has been prescribed to State wetland authorities.

Salt pans are an example how one use (of making salt) has trumped the other (of environmental balance). Salt pans as ‘wetlands’ have been omitted from the new Rules. They were identified as wetlands in the 2010 Rules, as they are often important sites of migratory birds and other forms of biodiversity. The omission in the 2017 Rules suggests that while saltpans do exist as wetlands, they do not require any conservation or ecological balance. The inference can also be that it would be acceptable to tip the environmental balance or integrity of such a wetland, which could lead to damage and pollution.

DSCN4743
Forest wetland in Asola Sanctuary, Delhi.

The case of Deepor Beel

The issue of wetlands being multiple-use areas — and subsequently being abused due to clashes of interest — found centre-stage this year with the observations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the case of Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is a Ramsar site and a part of it is also wildlife sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam. (‘Ramsar Sites are designated because they meet the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance.’) This wetland harbours a wide variety of biodiversity, and also suffers from intense man-made pressure — the city’s municipal waste is dumped close to the Beel. Large, meat-eating storks (Greater adjutant storks) are ironically found eating from the mountains of garbage at the site. Potential impacts of contamination or poisoning from the garbage are still unknown. This January, 26 storks died. The fact that Deepor Beel (Beel means water body) exists as a wetland does not prevent garbage dumping; this is a fate faced by many wetlands. The NGT’s observations on Deepor Beel are interesting and symptomatic of what is happening in several wetlands. In an inspection done by the judicial member of the Tribunal, it was noted that waste was being dumped “not beyond the site but within it,” and “demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources”. These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem; or from a lake to a garbage dump or cesspool. The Tribunal has now asked for the “traditional” spread of the wetland.

Given all the modern uses of wetlands, or the use of the wetland only for its land, looking at traditional cartography may be one way to understand catchments of wetlands. It may also be a way of restoring some modicum of ecological character, identity or ‘rights’ to wetlands, as the river judgment suggested. There are challenges ahead in identifying wetlands – multiple and competing use is just one of them. Understanding the historic spread and ecological character will be an important bulwark for the way forward. Setting clear governance systems would be the next. Without either, we are looking at a complete dilution of wetlands in the country.

This first appeared here.

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