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India: Open Letter to Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Regarding Delhi Tree Massacre

’Dear minister, you are the custodian of public land, not its owner’

by Vimlendu Jha , 26 July

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An open letter to Union Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri, as Delhi High Court examines clearances given by his ministry.

Dear Mr Puri,

When I first learnt that you were joining the Union government as Minister of State with independent charge in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, I was partially happy, for I thought someone like yourself – who has been a civil servant, and worked closely with the United Nations, one of the most reputed humanitarian organisations of the world – would bring us good vision and governance. Unfortunately, this euphoria was short lived as you meticulously worked out the massacre of trees in Delhi, all in the name of redevelopment.

As the Monsoon Session of Parliament is underway, I assume you will have little time and limited mind space to go through an educational piece explaining what the current crisis in Delhi is about. I have therefore taken the liberty of simplifying it as a reader, as something I prepared for my nephew who studies in Class 7.

Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world

In the last three years, Delhi has been honoured by several international research organisations as the most polluted city in the world. Government-run air quality monitoring stations in the national Capital have reported an air quality index of 999 on several occasions as recently as June. This level is beyond hazardous.

We first blamed this on firecrackers, then on crop burning, and now on the anti-cyclonic dust condition in the region. But as much as these factors affect Delhi’s ambient air quality, they just lead to a spike in the air quality index, which is already poor.

Delhi’s air quality problems are of its own making. Without the fire crackers, without the crop burning and dust conditions, it maintains an average air quality index of 200-300 in most areas, ranging from heavily polluted to hazardous. Many cities in the world would be shut down or even evacuated with such a consistent level of air pollution.

The Lancet Commission on pollution and health had stated in a report published in 2017 that over 2.5 million people died in India in 2015 due to pollution. A Global Burden of Disease report of 2017 states that over 1.1 million died in India in 2015 due to air pollution. A study published last fortnight in Elsevier’s Process Safety and Environmental Protection journal states that more than 15,000 people died prematurely in Delhi in 2016 due to air pollution issues. Our own desi institution, the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, shared a report early this year that air pollution deaths in India would increase to over 3.6 million a year by 2050 unless adequate and urgent action is taken.

Perhaps you are not aware of these reports. Perhaps you have not felt the smog or dust at your home in Lutyens Delhi. You could possibly be ignorant about the crisis in Delhi also because none of the death certificates of the 15,000 Delhiites who died in 2016 because of air pollution-related causes state that the city’s air caused their premature end. You are not at fault for your ignorance.

Delhi has a deficit of 9 lakh trees, as per the CAG

A Comptroller and Auditor General report states that there is a deficit of over 9 lakh trees in Delhi. Another CAG report tabled in the Delhi Assembly in April exposes the inadequacy in the functioning of the Tree Authority of Delhi, and has pulled up the Delhi government for this. The report states that there is a deficit of 23% in the number of trees that were supposed to be planted between 2014 and 2017 – 28.12 lakh trees against the target of 36.57 lakh. It also pointed out that the Tree Authority of Delhi met once between 2014 and 2017, while it is required to meet at least once in every three months. If we go by the same CAG report, the green cover in Delhi has reduced to 113 sq km in 2017, from 123 sq km in 2009.

A few decades ago, Delhi was one of the greenest capitals of the world. Today, it is inching towards desertification.

It is a fact that trees help reduce smoke and fine particulate matter, including dust. My nephew also reminded me of the process of photosynthesis by which trees release oxygen into the atmosphere, as well as that trees recharge groundwater too. You must know that 90% of Delhi’s groundwater has been declared to be in critical zone by a government department – the Central Ground Water Board.

People protest against the cutting of trees in Sarojini Nagar in June. (Photo credit: HT).

Delhi has a shortfall of 39,000 government houses.

In its 2017-2018 report, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Urban Development states that there is a shortfall of 39,000 houses for government officials in the national Capital. Your ministry has informed this panel that the redevelopment of seven government colonies in South Delhi will provide 16,000 houses, thus narrowing the gap between supply and demand. We understand the need for housing for government officials but we wonder if these houses need to be built in one of the greenest areas of Delhi. Could they not have been constructed in less dense green areas such as Bawana, Narela, Rohini or Dwarka, which are already connected by the Delhi Metro or will soon will be on the metro line?

Additionally, most of the old houses in these seven colonies were classified as Type I, II and III flats, and were meant mostly for the lowest in the government hierarchy. Once the new apartment complexes replace these old colonies, according to the housing plan, these homes will be classified as Type IV, V, and VI apartments, meant mostly for mid- and senior-level government officials. Perhaps the peons and the clerks of the Government of India should live on the periphery of the city, if at all. The outer boundary of what is known as the Lutyens Zone should be extended to the more powerful.

A close examination of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Ministry of Urban Development and the builder, NBCC (India) Limited, reveals that not an inch of land in one of the colonies, Nauroji Nagar, will be used for government housing. The total plot area of 1.01 lakh square metres will be diverted for fully commercial or office establishments after felling 1,465 full-grown trees and thousands of shrubs.

Similarly in Sarojini Nagar, the biggest colony the government wants to bulldoze and redevelop, 19.85 lakh square metres of built-up area will be used for residential and community facilities and an almost equal area of 17.04 lakh square metres will go for commercial blocks. Similarly, there is no clarity whether another government colony, Kasturba Nagar, is proposed to be used for commercial or residential purposes.

A close examination of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by your ministry also reveals that even residential units constructed as part of this redevelopment – not just commercial ones – can be sold to private companies. The project is nowhere close to completion, struggling to even take off well, but the advertisements of these fancy apartments have already found their way to prominent national and international property websites.

My nephew travels 40 km each day, spending over 2 hours commuting to school. He is naïve and compares himself to a government babu, who, he feels, could also live on the periphery of the city and come to work each day. Please forgive his lack of understanding that the Union government is building houses for the government and therefore needs to keep it close to the government.

16,780 trees are to be felled for the redevelopment project

I am not sure when to believe you and when to not believe you. In the past month, I have heard you say so many different things with regard to felling of trees. From “no tree has been felled” to “no trees will be felled”, to “if any tree is felled, we will plant X number of trees”. On June 28, you announced you would plant one million trees in Delhi. You perhaps are the best judge of what you mean by each of your statements or promises. But how is it possible to say “not a single tree will be cut” and then add “if it is cut”, all in one breath.

Coming to the point, cutting 16,780 trees, as per your own ministry’s documents is a disastrous proposition. The logic provided by your ministry and its officials is that these trees need to be felled primarily to build underground parking for cars. The environment clearances issued by your colleagues in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, states that in the three colonies of Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar, parking facilities for 1.10 lakh cars have to be built and therefore trees can be chopped. The irony is that the ministry that has granted permission to replace the trees with cars is the primary custodian of our environment and trees – it is not the car parking ministry.

Compensatory afforestation is a farce

Often NBCC India and you yourself have cheered the provision of compensatory afforestation. You have been living in India for a long time, therefore please allow me to share with you the farce called “compensatory afforestation”. As recently as April, the Supreme Court of India had pulled up the Union government for not using Rs 90,000 crore that is lying in the compensatory afforestation fund, which is meant for the restoration of the environment. Most of the money that is part of this fund is either unutilised or is used for construction of roads or installation of streetlights. Sir, these are observations of the highest court of the country.

Say for a moment we trust your intentions and believe that you will carry compensatory afforestation in this particular redevelopment project, as mandated by law. Please explain to us : how can a 60-year-old or 70-year-old tree be replaced by 10 saplings? What are the citizens of Delhi going to breathe for the next 10 years while these saplings attempt to survive as full-grown trees? How can trees felled in Sarojini Nagar – and the ecological impact of that on land, water and air in that area – be compensated by planting trees in Wazirabad, some 30 km away? Please understand that meeting targets is not called compensatory afforestation. Ensuring that these trees survive and they balance out the ecological damage in the long run was the basic rationale behind the provision.

With regard to this project of redevelopment of government colonies in Delhi, the National Green Tribunal had laid out clear preconditions of compensatory afforestation before undertaking any felling of trees. As per the CAG report, there is a shortfall of 84% in compensatory afforestation in East Kidwai Nagar, another redeveloped government colony, and the ones that were planted on site were ornamental species as they grow fast but they do not necessarily combat air pollution.

Dear Mr Puri, please understand that your ministry is just the custodian of public land and not the owner of this land. A project that has implications on public health or public ecology needs public consultation. The most unfortunate part is that Rs 32,000 crore of public funds will be used to plunder public resources, including its environment. Since Delhi is already a gas chamber, which, according to the Niti Aayog, another government body, is also nearing the water crisis seen in South Africa’s Cape Town, it is only wise that you plan any development or redevelopment around its trees rather than over its trees.

This is new kind of cronyism – of the government, for the government, by the government.

Finally, to dismiss every public commentary or dissent as “mischief mongering”, as often stated by you, is irresponsible, and not classy.

Vimlendu Jha

(One of the organisers of the campaign against tree felling in Delhi, and a Member of the Ridge Management Board).

P.S.

The above letter was published earlier on scroll.in - 26 July 2018 and had been reproduced here in public interest and is for educational use