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.

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Walking is a Way of Knowing

I review two new books, Walking is a Way of Knowing and Speaking to an Elephant, which tell stories of tribal legend.

In India, forest-dwellers are seen in binaries, sidelining a more quotidian understanding of their lives. ‘Walking is a Way of Knowing’ and ‘Speaking to an Elephant’ present the beautiful stories we’re missing out on as a result.

 

Green is not just a colour but a spectrum, suggests Walking is a Way of Knowing. Because “it is always dark inside the forest, and the sky is green”. When the sun filters through leaves, they become “parakeet green, fern green, viper green and dark spinach green”. Colour, then, becomes a simple way to understand the biological complexity of the forest.

In literature, the forest is a space that has been unpacked through the non-native. Tales of the ‘jungle’ were first told through white explorers, who exoticised the forest and were positioned as outsiders. This was a space to be forged and interpreted by the ‘civilised’ scholar, scientist or adventurer. National Geographic magazine, with its expansive, fine-grained coverage on peoples and places readers had “never even imagined”, recently admitted that its coverage of tribals or “natives” has been racist.

In India, the forest is understood largely as a management unit, and forest-dwellers are seen in binaries. They are either painted as enemies of wildlife conservation – just this month, two Baiga tribal women were arrested in Kanha tiger reserve for gathering mushrooms – or are represented as living in perfect harmony with the forest. What is missing is a quotidian understanding of the forest-dweller’s life.

Walking is a Way of Knowing Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

How, for example, do people find their way in the forest? What do they do when they encounter wildlife in the everyday – in instances when there is no obvious conflict or ‘event’? More broadly, what is their biography of forest life and the forest as a whole? Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi’s book Walking is a Way of Knowing works to fill this gap. It is a mild subversion of tropes, with the Kadar tribal who becomes the centre of the stories. The Kadars are a tribe of the biodiverse Annamalai hills of the Western Ghats. The tribal, not the scientist, is the expert, with experiential and traditional knowledge. In Speaking to An Elephant, Ramesh and Chandi are retellers of Kadar mythologies.

What you get in both books is straightforward writing rather than interpretations.

“Woods have always been a place of in-betweenness…,” Robert Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places (2007). “Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories of forests, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The sense of wonder in the everyday life of walking in the forest – and the forest itself as a story – suffuses Kadar tales. Crucially, however, this not the hobbyist wonder of the nature enthusiast or ornithologist but a more felt spectacle, existing quietly along with the menace of ticks, wildlife encounters and the difficulties of weather. The divide between the reader – the one who reads about forests in books – and the Kadar, the insider, is intimate. This adds greatly to the stories.

On the question of the Kadar finding her way through the forest, Padma, a tribal woman, explains, “If you build a map of the area in your heart this way, by constantly looking and feeling your way through the place, you will find that it reaches your feet and they will guide you back home in any season, even at night.”

And this is not for everyone. The rights of the forest must be earned, she says: “But it takes many years, a clear memory and strong legs!”

The Kadar have strong legs and they learn to walk quietly, like the elephants they meet often in the forest. On interactions with wildlife, the Kadar narrate how they have to exchange gifts with wild animals – in other words, leave food for them. They say they take only precise quantities of forest goods.

Speaking to An Elephant Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

The forest is a provider and teacher both, gifting the Kadar with just enough, with this becoming a central idea both in their knowledge and mythologies of kadavul(Tamil for the almighty). This would also be what researchers or the forest department would later call “sustainable harvest”.

The landscape in the books will be new for most readers, particular to the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. You have mossy trees, Kurinji shrubs, four kinds of beehives, red and pink elaeocarpus leaves. Speaking to an Elephantwill specially appeal to children, in its very Indian characters spoken of in a voice not heard before. There are stories on why tortoises have stitch-like marks on their shells, why white kumin mushrooms appear only on one day of the year and why grasshoppers hop.

What greatly helps both books are sumptuous, florid illustrations by Matthew Frame. His artwork may remind you of Chris Riddell’s work for Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (2013).

Walking is a Way of Knowing, however, needed more careful copy-editing and a much more extensive index for local names and words. The book would have also benefitted greatly from short, contextual explanations of genus and biological names and functions.

But these are stories that become important not only because they have not been heard but because they provide alternative explanations of the machinations of the forest – at a time when it is being seen as a commodity to be raised and sold. One hopes the Kadar’s traditional knowledge of the rhythm of the forest, along with that of hundreds of other forest-dwelling tribes and peoples, will find its way into mandatory People’s Biodiversity Registers and, ultimately, in conservation and species recovery plans.

As the Kadar forge and walk their paths, they have to use all their senses to feel their way through the forest because it demands this submission, and also deserves it. The difficulty of the task is buoyed by its beauty. As Madiyappan, an elderly Kadar, sums up succinctly, “We return to the forest again and again: as much to fill our stomachs as our hearts.”

 

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

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.

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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.

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.

Bada Peelu 1
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.

Golden Flameback
Woodpecker on an old tree.

This first appeared as an oped in The Hindu.

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.

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.

Bada Peelu 1.JPG
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

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

Indian Draft Forest Policy should involve people in forest documentation

A register by the people

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Leopard in Pench forest. Photo by me.

The draft National Forest Policy identifies threats to forests, but does not provide systems for public involvement

 Neha Sinha

India recorded a marginal increase in forest cover, according to the India State of Forest Report 2017. Around the same time this report was released, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released a draft National Forest Policy, 2018, which calls for increasing forest cover, involving communities in forest management, and creating plantations for industrial use. Before formulating such a policy, a question that needs to be asked is, how much forest cover does India actually have?

Growing and losing forests

The State of Forest Report says that forest cover had increased in India by 0.21% in 2017 from 2015, and that some areas had become ‘Very Dense Forest’ in this period. At the same time, the Ministry itself admits that between 2014 and 2017, India lost, or legally diverted, 36,575 hectares of forest area towards 1,419 development projects. So, two things are clear: even if forest cover is being increased, it is also simultaneously being lost, and new forest may also be subsequently lost.

Crucially, the claim of new forests being created is questionable. In several consecutive forest reports, an absence of ground truths has meant that areas that look green, such as tea estates and commercial plantations, have been counted as forests. Environmentalists stress that it is difficult to believe that India’s forest cover has become more dense in the last two years simply because this process takes much longer. The point is that there is a need to create mechanisms to calculate our actual forest cover and natural wealth, and this should form the basis for a forest policy. For this, we need a more rigorous integration of the forest policy with other existing environmental legislation and policy. This, in turn, will help decentralise information on forests.

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, calls for setting up a Biodiversity Management Committee in each local body. The Committee will prepare People’s Biodiversity Registers (PRBs), with tribals as members or people living in natural areas not classified legally as forest. The Registers entail a complete documentation of biodiversity in the area — plants, food sources, wildlife, medicinal sources, etc. They are meant to enable the creation of local biodiversity funds for conservation, and aid in decision-making.

A good PBR will not just be a powerful text, it can also help to trace how habitats are changing, and to understand and estimate parts of our forests. Being a bottom-up exercise, it is also a means of understanding the overlap of cultural and natural biodiversity. For instance, several Endemic Birds Areas, like in the Western Ghats, are those where tribals like the Todas live. These communities have specific ways of interacting with the environment and have helped conserve it in a sustainable way. Outside protected forest areas which are under immediate threat, PBRs will help identify forests that require conservation.

A golden chance of setting up a system of efficient natural area monitoring will be lost if PBRs and Biodiversity Management Committees are not integrated into the heart of the draft Forest Policy. The policy should take forward an existing legislation to achieve that elusive blend of tradition and modernity and also create digitised maps with truths from the ground.

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Sanjay Van.

Decentralisation

Traditionally, the view of forests in India has been that of a natural resource which requires management and effective commercial use. This is a largely centralised, government-run exercise. Forests are managed by forest departments, and their estimation and range is calculated by government agencies. While the draft Forest Policy talks about increasing forests, including for commercial purposes, through public-private partnerships, it does not create a mechanism for including those who live around forests.

The draft identifies threats to forests but does not provide systems for community involvement. It says: “The various threats to Forests due to encroachments, illegal tree fellings, forests fires, invasive weeds, grazing, etc. will be addressed within the framework of the approved Working Plan/Management Plan and also by ensuring community participation in forest management.” A major concern is that existing forests should not be used for industrial use, as diversion is one of the biggest threats to forests. A move towards decentralisation of forest wealth — wealth which is beyond commerce and embraces cultural values and oft-forgotten knowledge — will provide transparency as well as an actual and felt recognition of our heritage.

This first appeared here.

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.

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.

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