Sanjay Van saga: Forest or park, what does Delhi need?

Rich in biodiversity, Sanjay Van in Delhi is a notified reserved forest. Here's why environmentalists fear it may soon be a thing of the past.

The Delhi Forest Department has officially notified the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) about reported tree cutting activities at Sanjay Van. The forest department’s south division has verified the claim, citing an infringement of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA) 1994, due to the unauthorised felling of trees in Sanjay Van, Mehrauli, New Delhi.

According to officials, the alleged incident came to light through the vigilance of environmental activists. The accusations stemmed from a volunteer organisation called “There is No Earth B,” which conducts regular cleanup campaigns at Sanjay Van. With a volunteer base exceeding 1,500 individuals, the group engages in periodic drives. On March 17th, they conducted a comprehensive investigation, revealing multiple instances of tree felling within Sanjay Van’s premises. “We found that 800-1,000 trees had been chopped off, creating a large clearing,” says Shubham, an organiser of the cleanup. 

Sanjay Van, spread over an area of approximately 783 acres is an integral part of South-Central Ridge and is a notified “Reserved Forest”. Located near Vasant Kunj, a part of the ancient Aravalli Range with historic ruins dating back to the 12th Century, the dense forest with rich biodiversity is home to more than 200 species of birds, 70+ butterflies, and many mammals such as Nilgai, Jackals, Hare, Porcupines along with snakes and numerous insects.

Read more: Rediscover Delhi and its rich heritage through tree walks

According to volunteer members of ‘There Is No Earth B,’ the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is allegedly planning to repurpose this forest area into a commercial recreation spot that would accommodate a restaurant, conference hub and other non-forestry activities.

Barren clearing within Sanjay Van caused by the recent cutting and pruning of trees
Volunteer members of a clean-up drive by an environmental organisation recently alleged that many trees have been chopped off, creating a large clearing in the forest lands. Pic courtesy: There is no Earth B

Pushing for development at Sanjay Van

In August 2021, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) issued a notification inviting proposals for tourism activities, such as “Paragliding” and “Aerial Trails,” within Sanjay Van. The stated objective was to develop nature-based tourism and adventure activities in Sanjay Van, with the aim of utilising the facility for environmental awareness and recreation. According to Shubham, this aligned with the broader objective of transforming Sanjay Van into a ‘Sunder Nursery,’ a meticulously groomed garden space, complete with restaurants, to generate revenue for the DDA.

On January 30 2022, the activist group shared an email petition against new construction plans ordered by the Delhi Lieutenant Governor (LG), which included proposals for restaurants, toilets, conference areas, new types of trees and more. 

On April 5 2023, Peush Kumar, Deputy Director (Landscapes) at DDA, responded to the activist group’s objections via email stating, “There is no proposal to build a restaurant in Sanjay Van.”

Despite this communication from DDA, in May 2023, the LG requested the development of an eatery in Sanjay Van to accommodate the thousands of visitors who frequent the site. Shubham says that this agenda is evident in the recent felling of trees, even as Delhi topped the world rankings as the most polluted city in 2023.

Later that same year, the DDA signed an allegedly greenwashing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the World Wide Fund for Nature – India (WWF). The MoU spoke of implementing initiatives centred around the concept of ‘Learning with Nature’ and supporting hands-on experiences such as tree tagging, nature walks, flora & fauna observation, children’s educational activities etc.

DDA’s justification for tree cutting

In response to the current allegations, however, the DDA has issued a statement asserting, “No tree felling has been done at Sanjay Van. DDA has undertaken eco-restoration…as per the SOP developed by the forest department. Accordingly, weeds like lantana have been removed, and pruning of Prosopis juliflora, which is an exotic invasive species, has been undertaken.”

The DDA may assert that the primary target of tree cutting is Prosopis juliflora but what is concerning is the fact that a significant portion of Sanjay Van is dominated by this species. The justification sets a problematic precedent for extensive tree felling in the forest under the discretion of the LG, who chairs the DDA. 

“Publicly, they argue in favour of replacing invasive species with native ones, as reported in newspapers and other media outlets,” says Shubham, “However, the crux of the matter lies in the prevalence of the ‘vilayati kikar’ species, constituting a significant 75-80% of Sanjay Van. Removing this species would effectively strip Sanjay Van of its forest identity, rendering it unrecognisable as the cherished green space it’s known to be.”

The invasive species’ debate

In a world profoundly altered by human actions, it might be necessary to reconsider our understanding of “invasive species.” As highlighted in a compelling article by Marina Bolotnikova in 2021, the concept of invasive species is often biased towards nativism and is primarily driven by economic rather than ecological considerations. 

The notion of trying to completely eliminate these species is not feasible, as ecosystems are already heavily impacted and constantly changing due to climate change and habitat destruction. Marina writes that in the 21st century, the idea of an undisturbed ecosystem is unrealistic, and this reality will only intensify with the acceleration of climate change and habitat loss.

“From an environmental and legal perspective, the issue of cutting trees in Sanjay Van cannot be simplified. While it may seem reasonable to remove non-native species, such actions must be thoroughly assessed, particularly if these species have become integral to the local ecosystem,” says Prakhar Pandey, Environmental Expert and Lawyer, OP Jindal University. 

He also points out that the trees in Sanjay Van act as a significant carbon sink, a crucial asset in combating climate change and mitigating the city’s heat and pollution. Therefore, there is no clear rationale to support the decision to cut these trees without considering their long-standing ecological contributions and the pressing challenges posed by climate change and urban pollution.

Arian Wallach, an ecologist from the University of Technology Sydney, is renowned for her critique of invasion biology. She describes invasive species as merely a derogatory term used to demonise and morally exclude certain species, emphasising that they are neither inherently good nor bad, but rather subjected to unjust labeling.

Prakhar adds, “Before any cutting of trees the authorities should conduct environmental impact assessment for any development projects within Sanjay Van. This assessment is crucial to ensure the preservation of its unique biodiversity and ecological balance.”

Sanjay Van is classified as a reserved forest. Although it doesn’t hold the formal protection enjoyed by a national park or wildlife sanctuary, it remains a vital green space in Delhi, often regarded as a crucial environmental asset for the city. Therefore, even while it does not fall directly under forest protection laws, the act of tree cutting within Sanjay Van is still ethically questionable. Especially, when one considers its significance as a green lung, and its role in fostering biodiversity and mitigating environmental challenges.

Ethics aside, it does come under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, which is a piece of legislation aimed at protecting and conserving trees in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. The Act imposes restrictions and guidelines on tree cutting to safeguard the green cover and promote environmental sustainability in the city. 

Under the Act, individuals or organisations must obtain permission from the Tree Officer before cutting or trimming any tree within the specified areas covered by the Act. This permission is granted based on valid reasons, for example, when the tree poses a danger or obstruction, or for development projects approved by relevant authorities. 

In the recent incident involving tree cutting in Sanjay Van, it has become apparent that the tree officer within the forest department lacks crucial information. This deficiency is borne out by the forest department’s summoning of the official responsible, namely the Deputy Conservator of Forests (South)/Tree Officer at Delhi Development Authority (DDA). 

The deputy conservator of forests (south)/tree officer at DDA was asked to appear before the divisional forest department’s office on April 17th at 10 am. A notice issued on March 21st stated that in the event of failure to appear, legal action would be initiated against the official, and the matter would proceed ex-parte.

Forest department officials say that the current issue appears to be related to excessive pruning. “It appears that instead of light pruning, they conducted heavy pruning on numerous trees. Nevertheless, we have issued a notice to ascertain the factual position and receive an explanation,” stated an official.

Compensatory planting: Does it work?

Saplings have been observed planted around the trees that were pruned. However, questions arise as to whether these saplings will be sufficient and if they will be able to support the biodiversity that the forest already possesses. Furthermore, there is a debate on whether such a move was necessary at all.

Reforestation does not necessarily lead to forest restoration. Although tree planting appears to offer straightforward and undeniable advantages, the truth is more nuanced. Various intricate factors must be taken into account to assess the necessity, timing, and specific types of tree planting required. 

Read more: India urgently needs urban forests. What’s stopping us from creating more?

A 2019 study in the Journal ‘Science’ emphasising global tree restoration potential faced substantial criticism, particularly for overlooking local conditions in several identified areas suitable for restoration. 

New saplings planted in Sanjay Van.
Saplings have been observed planted around the trees that were pruned. The question is, will this be enough to sustainably support the biodiversity here. Pic courtesy: There is no Earth B

Another 2017 study of mangrove forest restoration initiatives in Sri Lanka found that at nine out of 23 project sites, not a single planted tree survived. Just three sites saw more than half the trees surviving and, in the end, only about one-fifth of the more than 1,000 hectares (almost 2,500 acres) planted successfully recovered as healthy mangrove ecosystems.

Residents question need for development

Chandra Bhushan, an avid birder, has been visiting Sanjay Van for over 13 years. His primary concern lies in the potential loss of biodiversity due to commercialisation and development within the park. He questions the impact of these changes on the local fauna, given his extensive documentation of over 150 bird species and 70 butterflies during his visits over these past years. 

Image showing butterfly species mating in Sanjay Van, New Delhi.
Naturalists who are regular visitors in Sanjay Van have documented many butterfly species in the forest. Pic: Yash Raina/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“I strongly appeal to the government to preserve the park in its natural state, untouched by extensive development,” says the birder, “For instance, a few years ago, Peacock Hill was filled with trees and bushes, but now it’s been cleared and turned into a park with exotic plants. This change has disrupted the habitat of rare species like the red bunting and red munia that I had observed earlier. I believe that the existing natural environment is perfectly suited for the sustainability of these species, and altering it may have negative consequences”. 

Another visitor I spoke with also questioned the upcoming development. “What is  the need to convert the natural jungle in the Aravalli region to a park, when the city already has parks but no other van(forest)?

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This long form piece was produced as part of his work under the Fellowship.

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