“We have written around 200 online complaints, given seven petitions, have even written to the Lieutenant Governor and Delhi government’s forest department,” says Amit Kumar, a resident of Dwarka Sector 8, who is leading the campaign against the felling of trees for a storm water drain project in this vast Delhi colony.
“Dwarka is one of the most polluted areas in Delhi. There is only one park in Sector 8 that serves all its approximately 15,000 residents, which includes the nearby Bagdola village and Raj Nagar Part 2 as well. Earlier, a park was destroyed to make way for a sports complex. Another park nearby has a dirty drain and the stench makes it unbearable for anyone to go there.”
The latest month-long protest by residents of Sector 8 is against the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) plan to cut 600 trees in their neighbourhood to construct a storm water drain. This drain is mainly to prevent waterlogging at a new runway to be constructed for the Indira Gandhi International Airport and does not in any way protect the colony’s residents from waterlogging during the rains.
Amit Kumar and his fellow residents are now fighting to prevent the DDA from destroying the only public park in their sector. But the DDA in fact has marked the trees and written to the Delhi government’s forest department for environmental clearance, which the forest department is yet to act on. The project involves construction of a 3-km long drain from the IGI airport to Trunk Drain 2, which is near another park, the Bharat Vandana Park, which fortunately has been spared from any tree cutting.
Residents propose alternative plan
The park which the residents are fighting to preserve is a much smaller one in the sector. One portion of the drain will be underground but one section will pass through this park. Residents have suggested an alternative proposal, wherein the drain will go under a parallel road rather than cut through the park.
“We are going to develop various other parks in whole of Dwarka, from Sector 8 to 24,” is the rebuttal given by Hira Singh Rawat, DDA’s Executive Engineer to the residents protests. “We have a plan to treat the dirty drain water that passes through the other park near the CRPF camp. The tendering process for it is complete. That project will go hand-in-hand with the drain project”.
Amit Kumar and company however, are not convinced. “There is no need to destroy the park,” insists Amit. “We have had three meetings with DDA officials who say they are assessing this alternative plan. We are not against development. We just want to save our park that is important for local environmental sustainability.”
But the DDA is no mood to listen. “We acknowledge the concerns of residents but there won’t be any change in the original plan,” was Rawat’s response to the alternate plan suggested by residents. “The widening of the drain through this area has been done in consultation with experts from IIT Roorkee. Trees will be transplanted in other areas and some near the original place. This way the environment will be saved and the project will also get built.”
On the project’s feasibility , environmental activist Diwan Singh, formerly a member of the Lieutenant Governor Appointed Dwarka Water Bodies Committee in 2013, argues that as Delhi doesn’t get a lot of rain, it is tough to understand the fears that the new runway will be flooded without this new storm drain. “Even if this is the case, they can create recharge pits near the airport runway,” suggests Diwan Singh. “Alternative land should be looked into, instead of cutting 600 trees. Dwarka has already seen a lot of environment destruction in the name of development. For instance, another project envisages the Bharat Vandana Park being redone into a tourism hub, rather than a biodiversity park. This will engender local species like turtles, Indian hare, peacocks, monitor lizard, mongoose, jackals, etc.”
Replanting trees a non-starter
Residents are still hopeful that some consensus can be reached through discussion, but will not shy away from legal steps if necessary and have consulted legal and environment experts on the issue. “These are grave issues, posing a threat to the environment and fall under the Delhi Tree Preservation Act, 1994,” said senior lawyer Rahul Chaudhary, founding member of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment. “Under the act, the DDA will have to give a viable justification for cutting down 600 trees and show there was no alternative available.”
There are legal precedents for this. In the landmark case of Raghunath Jha v Ministry of Urban Development, the National Green Tribunal had said that compensatory plantation has to be done in the ratio of 1:10. This principle was reiterated when thousands of trees were cut in Delhi’s Nauroji Nagar to start construction of Delhi’s first World Trade Centre.
Many projects have been cleared based on this assurance from those responsible for implementation. But there has been continuing criticism over where the trees should be transplanted and whether it is sufficient to make up the original environment damage.
“There has been a lot of criticism of compensatory afforestation: the net present value, the scientific calculation of damage to the ecosystem and whether shelf-life of plant will be similar to the ones already cut,” says Pranav Menon, a legal researcher on environment. “Ideally, the trees should be transplanted nearby, but there is no clarity on where to do that. It is also difficult to know where the authorities transplant trees uprooted for infrastructure projects.”
The Dwarka project suffers the same deficiency. For though the Delhi tree transplantation policy was notified by the Delhi government last year, there is no clarity on these controversial aspects of compensatory afforestation.