The Forest Department has given permission to chop down nearly 17,000 trees in Delhi for the redevelopment of Central Government accommodations. While the government is talking euphemistically about the destruction, the numbers are staggering. 11,000 out of 13,128 trees in Sarojini Nagar will be felled. 1,465 out of 1,513 in Nauroji Nagar. 3033 out of 3906 in Netaji Nagar. 108 out of 349 in Thyagraj Nagar. 447 out of 562 in Mohammadpur and all 520 trees in Kasturba Nagar. The felling of 1,713 trees was approved earlier for the integrated complex at Pragati Nagar, also implemented by NBCC, which is implementing these projects.
For a city fighting a losing struggle with pollution, desertification, a dropping water table and climate extremes, the cutting of most of the trees in an area is nothing short of catastrophic. Trees improve the quality of air, strengthen the structure of the land, help retain moisture in air and soil, support biodiversity - in short, trees do a lot of things that support human needs. At a time when largescale reforestation is seen as a viable longterm solution to combat climate change, and a government report warns of 21 Indian cities to run out of groundwater within 2 years, a government planning to decimate thousands of trees in a city already struggling with environmental degradation raises serious questions about the motivations of decisionmakers.
Even more ironic is that the destruction is being wreaked in the name of constructing housing at a time when the real estate market is in a massive slump and the unsold inventory is vast. It is a game of money. It will be cheaper for the government to construct bulk housing. That kickbacks in large projects grease the machinery everywhere is an open secret. The very survival of the city being ignored toward this end does not bode well.
The government is making placatory noises about saplings being planted and trees being relocated, with claims designed to fool the gullible with numbers. "10 saplings planted for every tree cut" etc. The fact of the matter is that it is not so simple. The loss isn't just of a number of trees, though the number itself is significant. The loss, in environmental terms is one of ecology. The biodiversity of well established trees growing in an area, with roots deep into the ground that enable them to survive Delhi's increasing desertification, the undergrowth of shrubbery, symbiotic and parasitic life forms existing in a stable balance, birds and animals finding shelter in the canopy, surviving the harsh summers in its protection, the cooling effect of their shade for the region, the binding of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen supporting a densely populated urban sprawl.... 10 saplings may seem like well compensated in numbers, but decades will pass before those saplings can approach the functions that established tree cover killed today will. In the meanwhile, life forms depending on those trees for survival will perish.
Reforestation is also not a simple game. Delhi's water table is very low. for saplings to survive till the point their roots can naturally reach and draw water will take years of careful watering and nurturing, which will prevent the establishment of forest and development of the biodiversity. And at the end of all this, it still cannot be guaranteed that the trees will survive, as reforestation shows best results in fertile soil with a good moisture content, and we all know the situation of Delhi on that front. Moving mature trees is an even more expensive and complicated process. Mature trees have extensive root systems, and suffer considerable damage to roots in the process, with only a section of the rootball (size is calculated based on tree size) being transplanted to the new location. The trees need careful nurturing after being transplanted in order to survive.
In a country where government policies make it hard for humans to survive, where an arbitrary action like demonetisation devastated the economic survival of many, where the imposition of Aadhaar forces people to get and update theirs or lose out on necessities, where millions of humans "transplanted" by government lack proper relocation, it is very difficult to imagine the government taking the effort it would require, to even deliver on their inadequate claims of compensatory action. Nor do the assurances appear to be backed by actual hard information on where this mythical extensive plantation of thousands of trees will happen. On what land.
Cutting down trees on this scale is irreversible damage to the city.
Today, largescale reforestation is being considered seriously by governments as an essential step toward combating climate change. Brazil kicked off the world's largest reforestation project to date last year with an ambitious plan to plant 73 million trees to combat the deforestation of the Amazon. Perhaps the Indian government should at least plant those saplings first and let them grow to maturity before touching established trees.