The Tree as an Urban Coordinate

A mature tree creates a sense of civilisation the way a manicured green belt cannot

The ongoing protests in some of India’s largest cities (these include Delhi and Mumbai) to save natural and not built entities — trees in urban spaces — are remarkable, even though we understand that cities are centres of construction; spaces curated and created mainly by the human hand.

Hundreds of Delhi residents took to the streets in protest against a plan to have 14,000 trees cut for the “redevelopment” of government colonies in South Delhi. In Mumbai, citizens have been fighting for years to save over 2,000 trees in Aarey, slated to be felled for another kind of development — to make way for a metro line car shed.

The idea of an urban tree, one that is outside of a lush forest, does not resonate ecologically as much as a forest or a ‘pristine’ national park. Yet for urban activists protesting for their trees to be saved, the fight is for the tree they can see near their front porch; not one that has been marked for transplantation in unreachable parts of the city.

For them, it is the tree that situates a particular part of the city by becoming an immutable part of the integrity of the landscape.

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A grand old Delhi tree: the Amaltas

Trees outside a forest

It is well known that forests are invaluable as ecological entities. The UN’s REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, programme lays emphasis on planting and maintaining forests as a means to counter climate change. In India, forests are governed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, State laws, and the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which lay down elaborate rules for the conservation and diversion of forests. Despite this, forests are the first targets when it comes to projects such as mining, dams, highways, industrial projects and so on, to be offset by compensatory afforestation. Former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar once remarked that diversion of forest should be seen as ‘reforestation’. As far as the issue of trees outside forest areas is concerned — city trees — the situation is much worse.

Trees in cities usually come under State Tree Acts; they can have variable descriptions. In Delhi, for example, these are usually avenue or colony trees. In the case of Aarey, it is a green belt or green patch. The monikers of ‘green belts’ or ‘green cover’ suggest a transferable quality in management — that the city would not be worse off if another tree or green belt comes up elsewhere, as long as it is green. Therefore, it is important that urban citizens are fighting to keep city trees where they are. They argue that the age and very place of the tree is an important fulcrum for their activism.

In a sense then, a mature tree creates a sense of civilisation.

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Bada Peelu in Qutab Complex

Shared habitat

As India moves towards more urbanisation, can cities be looked at more as shared habitats between humans and biodiversity, rather than a jungle of buildings? The question, even if not consciously faced through planning strategies, will need to be tackled in one form or the other as cities become progressively more unliveable. With its year-round hazardous air quality and an increase in cars and inhabitants, Delhi is a tough city to live in. Trees in Delhi do not just purify the air; they are also visual relief.

The fact that cities need open spaces and greenery is clear from the number of people crowding parks, be it Central Park in New York or Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. The earlier wave of tree plantation in Delhi which included Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, and Netaji Nagar, marked for redevelopment, have trees beneficial for biodiversity — native and naturalised trees such as neem, banyan, peepal, semal, arjuna, and siris. These large, old trees have become markers for Delhi. Yet, several new constructions in the cities belie these values even though they look green or have green belts. Buildings with basements are made in ways that allow only shallow beds which would not withstand deep-rooted, native trees. In sum, many new apartment complexes have green belts that do very little for biodiversity or the ecological idea of greenery.

Thus the fight for Delhi’s trees is also a fight for the right kind of species to be allowed to grow to the right size; this flies in the face of quickly manicured or manufactured ‘green belts’. It outlines a struggle for cities which have a civilisation of shared meaning and relationships between people and nature. And clearly this relationship comes through size, age and the tree as an optic for a lived, native habitat for birds and wildlife. Urban biodiversity then can be its own form of civilisation — one that our air as well as our urban identity needs desperately.

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Woodpecker on an old tree.

This first appeared as an oped in The Hindu.

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Why Delhi’s Natural Spaces Are Under Threat

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the  air.

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An ancient Bada Peelu in the Qutub complex, Delhi.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.

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When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.

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A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.

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Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.

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All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here

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