INDIA. Delhi: People who have lived in Delhi in the seventies of the last century faintly remember a lot of green areas all around the city. Every colony had lots of tree life which hosted lots of happy birds. Seniors say that they were always woken up by music every morning composed mainly of bird chirpings. Seniors still tell stories of seeing wild animals and hearing their sounds in their colonies.
Yes, there was a time in history when what we know as Delhi today was covered with thick forests teeming with wild-life. But much of this forest cover of the sprawling Capital and its satellite cities have now been converted into is a deafening concrete jungle of towering buildings, roads, and incessantly honking vehicles.
Vilayati (foreign) kikar, or Prosopis julifloara, the only form of vegetation visibly thriving on the Delhi Ridge has also wiped out other trees wherever it has grown. According to C R Babu, head of the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), the tree was brought to Delhi by the British in the early 1930s. It took over the Ridge completely within a short time, killing the native acacia, dhak, kadamb, amaltas, flame-of-the-forest, etc. And along with the trees disappeared the fauna – birds, butterflies, leopards, porcupines, and jackals.
Forests in Delhi
Yet, the city boasts of being one of the greenest Capitals in the world as the last vestiges of the forests continue to hold their own within this urban jungle. The longest stretch of forests in the city is the Ridge that extends from Southeast at Tughlaqabad, near the Bhati mines, tapering off the north Wazirabad on the river Yamuna. This 7,777 hectare reserved forest area not just lends a natural beauty but helps clean the city air. No wonder, one can term the Ridge area, the lungs of the city.
The Jahanpanah Forest in South Delhi, spreading over 800 acres, is a popular fitness destination for residents of nearby localities. The Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in the Southern Ridge. Then there are 26 areas notified as protected forests, according to the Delhi Government’s forest department. The department has over the year raised plantations in villages and government lands and maintains them as city forests. There are 13 old city forests to which new city forests are added, the department of forest and wildlife says in its website.
Is everything normal?
But is everything fine with the forests of Delhi? At first glance, everything may look quite good. But the ground reality, if environmentalists and experts are to be believed, is not so rosy. Apart from the natural forests, those forest regions that were once planted to make Delhi beautiful and protect it from desertification and help cover its ruins are reeling under a lot of pressure and have a fair chance for extinction. With every passing decade, the size of the forest region is shrinking very rapidly, thanks to development plans for the city. Not only this, an acute shortage of staff in the forest department makes this region very vulnerable to encroachers and hard to manage. Scant security also makes it ideal for criminals and criminal activities in these isolated forests.
The process of development is not a recent phenomenon. The downfall of Ridge forest started in 1920-30 when a massive development was taking place in the Capital. A large portion of Ridge near Delhi University was blasted to provide land to make colonies and business premises. There were several other cases of deforestation due to development.
Then post-Independence the fast-growing population of Delhi put a lot of stress on the natural resources of the city and the area under forest cover started diminishing. Delhi became a hub of development. A large portion of the Ridge was swallowed up, say environmentalists. Not only this, the forest lands are normally used as dumping grounds for construction material of concrete, cement, plastic, and garbage. This was so rampant that by the 1990s, Delhi was on the verge of becoming an ecological disaster – its green cover area was depleting and river Yamuna had become little more than a sewage canal for industrial effluents.
Thanks to some landmark court cases, including M. C. Mehta vs Union of India case, the city forests now getting a lifeline. All types of construction gas been stopped in the future in forest areas. Delhi has also come up with a plan to remove the kikar from the Ridge. Delhi’s fight against the tree gained momentum in the 1990s with court cases, representations to the government, and research papers. The transformation of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Wazirabad gave the forest department faith that the plan could work. The Delhi government also recently gave its nod to clearing the Central Ridge of the non-native tree in the hope that the area’s original flora, as well as fauna, can be restored.