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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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.

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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.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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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.

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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.

Why Spring is the Birding Season!

Tuk, tuk.

The sound is insistent and almost metallic.

You can hear it in most Indian cities. Under trees, next to your office window, while out on a walk, from your balcony.

The sound comes from a bird with whiskers — a bird coloured green, red, yellow and black. The small, energetic Coppersmith Barbet, bashing on with the cheer of a tuk-tuk on a colourful street; its call heralding the coming of summer.

For summer is almost here, and spring is ongoing. The fingers of heat will run through your face, bringing memories of heat exhaustion, but it is not unbearable yet. And this is the best time to get out there and go birding.

Let’s start with the coast. Coasts are not for everyone. In high summer, the sunlight prances on the water, and the whole world seems like a prism of blinding, broken glass. Early mornings at this time of the year are just right. You can take a boat and go into the sea, or you could hide out on the beach. There will be Brown-headed gulls, flying and hunting together, having come from Central Asia and Mongolia.

gullsforaging-copy_022418014501.jpgGulls foraging for food. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

They are bold birds, fine-feathered, looking impossibly smooth for all their watery pursuits. And if you look really hard, you can find Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint on beaches and on coastal wetlands. These tiny birds have feathers that look like fine, mottled mud — like the colours on ancient, well-worn pottery. The Little Stint is tiny, and that tiny bird makes a long migration to come to India — the ones we get here come from arctic reaches of Eurasia.

Go to the desert, and there too you will be delighted. This is the time of the year to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come to Rajasthan. They congregate chiefly at Khichan village, where villagers proudly feed these stunning, stately birds.

parrot-copy_022418011237.jpgRose-ringed Parakeet at a nesting site. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Over the years, man and Crane have grown together. The cranes have learnt that they can to go to Khichan , generation after generation, for both refuge and food in winter. And it is a date that they keep regularly, the magic of migration combined with peer-learning in the flock, remembering routes in the sky over the desert.

Part of the desert is in Delhi too. The Aravalli ranges start from Rajasthan and come to Delhi. The Aravallis are not moist and evergreen. Rather, like the capital, they are tough, thorny and spindly. A remarkable natural feature that requires much more love. Asola sanctuary in Delhi is full of birds. The area takes getting used to.

asola-copy_022418010744.jpgIndian Scops Owl. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Many native species of shrub and tree in the Aravallis dry forests have thorns almost an inch long. The grass is brown rather than green, and old rocks are worn with time. Thorny plants, well-adapted to Delhi’s heat and dryness, grasp on to it little pinches of dust between the rocky crags. You have to walk carefully, avoiding thorns.

Learning to embrace this tough, old place is rich in its rewards. In between the grass and rocks, you can find the stunning, quaint-as-a-button Painted Sandgrouse which is regularly seen in Asola. And you have the sedate looking, long-legged Indian stone-curlew which is a resident there. In the wetlands of Asola, you will find migratory birds hunting for food and fish — Bar-headed Geese, Mallard ducks and Northern Shovelers.

indian-hoopoe-copy_022418010924.jpgHoopoe on a tree. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

And apart from the birds, this is also the time to watch flowers. The Flame of the Forest is beginning to bloom all over central India. In the Himalayas, the blood-red rhododendron, which may be impacted by global warming, has begun blooming early, in winter and spring.

The impacts of climate change are evident in many phenologies — that is early or late blooming of flowers, changes in when insects or bird eggs hatch, among others. But spring is a time of celebration that is hard to ignore. It’s a time to get out there and look at the sky and the sea, the bough and the boulder. You’ll never be able to predict what you find.

All photos by me.

This piece first appeared here.

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