Neighbourhood trees becoming things of the past (Feature)

September 7th, 2008 - 11:28 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Sep 7 (IANS) Trees once extended a leafy canopy over 19-year-old Shruti Verma, protecting her from the summer sun as she waited for a bus near the Talkatora stadium to take her to college.But this summer she had to stand under the blazing sun. “I even fainted once because of dehydration and heat,” Verma said.

The trees at her bus stop were among the more than 32,000 cut down over the last few years to implement the capital’s metro and transportation projects.

Though these trees were scattered around the city mostly along the roads, together they would have made a forest of 64 hectares - about half the size of the entire President’s Estate and Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The destruction of these trees highlight a dilemma of environmentalism. Most of them were felled for projects that could help the environment by reducing the number of carbon-spouting vehicles on the streets as more people start to use more efficient public transportation: About 30,000 for expanding Delhi Metro and 2,000 for creating the Bus Rapid Transit System, which is made up of special road lanes for buses to ferry passengers quickly.

Among the reasons for climate change - that could be a cause of the recent unseasonal heavy rains followed by a delayed monsoon - is the production of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere making it warmer.

While automobiles create carbon dioxide, trees absorb the gas from the air, thus helping fight climate change. According to some estimates, about 10 mature trees will absorb the two tonnes of carbon produced by a small car that runs 10,000 kilometres a year.

“Permission has been given to Delhi Metro to fell about 29,360 trees for execution of its various projects in the capital,” Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit told the state assembly earlier this year. “Delhi Metro has further sought permission to cut another 7,508 trees for its second phase.”

The government has made it mandatory to plant 10 saplings for each tree felled. So far the Forest Department has planted 600,000 saplings - almost twice as many required to make up for the trees lost. But they are in places like Burari in north Delhi and in nine areas newly identified as city forests. Overall, the capital’s green cover increased by 15 sq km between 2003 and 2005.

Experts, however, do not say this makes up for the trees disappearing from neighbourhoods around the city and say the concept of “people and trees growing together” has long been forgotten.

Vikram Soni, a professor who monitors urban deforestation, said it was like the “insane notion that it is okay to kill all wild tigers as long as we replace them by adding the same population in captivity.”

“We attempt to balance the destruction with ‘compensatory afforestation’, words that suggest that whatever damage is being done can be undone or compensated by artificial plantation,” added Soni, a professor at the National Physical Laboratory who describes himself as an activist for “nature’s rights”. “Only to the unschooled and unsuspecting, this would appear to be a fair trade-off for development.”

Soni explained that the urban trees besides giving oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide and helping in water retention are also a part of the city’s ecosystem, which is getting degraded when they are cut down.

Then there’s the aesthetics, which riles A.G.K. Menon, an architect who lives in Panchsheel Park in south Delhi, and has witnessed the destruction of green on avenues near his house.

“Once I could see the pleasant sight of a green treeline out my home’s window. But they had to make way for the flyover. The flyover is not useful to me and trees are planted somewhere else,” Menon said.

“Social forestry or neighbourhood trees are not a priority for the forest department in the capital,” said Ajoy Bagchi, executive director of NGO People’s Commission on Environment & Development India. “But just note the cool temperature in a [neighborhood] park with lush green trees. More government efforts are required on this front.”

(This feature is one in a series developed by IANS under a climate and media programme of the International Center for Journalists’ Knight International Journalism Fellowships Program. Ritu Sharma can be contacted at

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