I very faintly remember the days when I came to Delhi in the late seventies of the last century. But still, I remember a lot of green areas all around the city. Even the colony where I settled had lots of tree life everywhere and lots of happy bird life. I was always woken up by music every morning composed mainly of bird soundings. In fact it was that time only that I got hooked to bird – watching.
Even now when I sit with few seniors who have been living in Delhi from sixties and seventies, their stories of seeing wild animals and hearing their sounds in our colony itself makes a virtual colourful jungle scene in front of my eyes.
Yes friends, there was a time in history when what we know as Delhi 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, road and incessantly honking vehicles.
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. Only next to Kenyan Capital of Nairobi, Delhi has a sizeable forest cover that is home to a fair population of wildlife. Spread over a total area that could cover 6,000 football fields, the urban forests are fighting for survival as land sharks continue to snipe at their roots.
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 village (Gaon Sabha) 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.
But is everything fine with the forests of Delhi? At first glance everything may look quite good. But ground reality, if environmentalist 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 from 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 the 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. The Karol Bagh area is a result of this. 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. The main problem started post-independence, where Delhi became a hub of development. A large portion of the Ridge was then swallowed up, note 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 1990s, Delhi was on the verge of becoming an ecological disaster – its green cover area was depleting and the 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 got a lifeline. No construction can now be done in future on forest areas.
When it comes to development, agencies become quite insensitive. Nobody thinks about Delhi forest or saving trees. They are in hurry to lay new roads, Metro lines and power transmission lines, says environmentalist lawyer M C Mehta. Even after the Supreme Court order a lot of construction has taken place in this Ridge area. Take for example, CRPF site at Ghitorni Metro Station or on your way to Surajkund, you will find many trees have been cut down.
The lawyer also questioned the official facts and figures, which shown an increment in the city`s green cover. “ Who says, green land has increased in the Capital? It is nothing like this. They have played with the facts and figures. What they are counting is all the trees everywhere, not in the jungle area. The jungle area has depleted very fast. If you don`t believe check the satellite picture,“ said M C Mehta.
But the story and comments with the govt dept is as usual – “There is nothing wrong”. There is widespread dumping of garbage and construction waste materials in several forest areas. All the area is well fenced. However, some anti-social elements dump waste inside. ‘We will take care of it,’ is the general reply from every government official.