From green to bare in New Delhi

Beautiful green canopies to brown, barren stumps
Beautiful green canopies to brown, barren stumps

The pavement burns the skin of my soles through my thick shoes, and the merciless sun blazes through my sunglasses making me squint in the blinding light. I look around for some shade but the tiny umbrella in my bag, my only saviour, proves useless. Delhi’s tree-lined streets are barren, the beautiful green shady canopies scarce .

The heat saps my energy and sometimes even my will to live as the temperature soars slowly and steadily. I wonder how the trees must feel…how they survive in this scorched land. The short spell of the monsoons, the noxious polluted air, the crowded space and the overwhelming march of the cemented pavement – that’s what the trees of Delhi are exposed to these days but the Delhi of yesteryears was quite different.

Garden laying in Mughal Times

The Mughals designed ‘charbaghs’, which were formal rectangular planned gardens inside the walled city of 19th century Delhi. These enclosed well-maintained beautiful areas were dotted with an eclectic mix of native trees.
Even the British did their part to make Delhi green…or thought they did. A hundred years ago, the first sketch plans of ‘British New Delhi’ shortlisted 13 species of trees to line its avenues and keep the capital green all year round – evergreen trees like neem, arjun or imli that were the right size and shape. Deciduous trees, which shed their leaves in the summer, such as the amaltas, aam and shisham, were dropped from this list. A seemingly smart plan, it unfortunately backfired due to Delhi’s weather patterns.
Delhi faces long periods of drought so these evergreen trees adapted to it and began shedding their leaves in the summer; something that doesn’t happen in moist forested areas where evergreen trees are mostly found. So now, we are stuck with bare, tall trees and no green canopies lining the avenues for nearly half the year.
To understand more about why Delhi is losing tree loss and to do something about it, Toxic Links organised a lecture on the ‘Dying trees of Delhi' . Three specialists from 3 diverse backgrounds - a government official, a tree enthusiast and a concerned citizen, spoke on the how, why and what of Delhi’s dying trees.

Green avenuesA C Shukla, Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden, Forest Department, said that Delhi’s green cover has increased by more than 10 times since 1993. Initiatives that might have helped this cause include the following: Ten saplings have to be planted and maintained for every tree felled and a compulsory 6 × 6 feet empty space to be maintained around each tree. Sadly, the availability of free uncontested land for plantation and lack of enforcement hamper this idea from taking root literally.

Trees of Delhi

Pradip Krishen, a passionate tree detective and author of ‘Trees of Delhi’ – a field guide to the uninitiated on trees – spoke on the importance of thinking about trees in relation to their environment and surroundings. His idea is simple – only grow trees that are native to the region. It has taken zillions of years for nature to hone its art. We just need to appreciate it and save ourselves and the forest department, heartbreak, money and energy.
An interesting nugget that he shared was the British Imperial committee’s narrow vision when finalising Delhi's avenue trees. They homed in on a few species of trees, all of which would arch prettily over the avenues, framing their architectural wonders. Unfortunately none of these were the Mughal favourites that had withstood the vagaries of time and nature or even deciduous trees such as the amaltas, aam or shisham. Today, Delhi is lined by this short list of the supposedly evergreen trees that stand bare for at least 6 months!

Padmavati Dwivedi, a wiry steel-willed woman is the founder of Compassionate Living, a trust that focuses on living well and doing good through the course of one's life. She has carried out the first tree census in the capital, is working on de-tiling or removing the tiles around trees to allow them some breathing room. Her stress was on the urgent need of a ‘green draft for Delhi’, which she feels will help make the capital greener in a more efficient and concentrated manner.

Green DelhiTo sum up the lecture, here’s what you can do as a true Dilliwala:

1. Be aware of government/ forest department guidelines, initiatives issued – For example did you know that there is a ‘Tree Helpline’ for lodging complaints regarding threats to trees in Delhi?

2. Ensure that new trees that are planted are native species (an easy reference is Pradip’s ‘Trees of Delhi’)

As cities expand and trees diminish, what Krishen says rings so true - "Trees are the balm and salve to our mistakes, symbols of renewal and growth, our reasons for hope and for keeping faith".

You are the change. Take the initiative and make a difference.