The Delhi government recently announced a new tree transplantation policy, a first-of-its-kind in the country. The announcement of this policy has led to apprehensions among green activists. I can empathise because activism is often black and white, there is no scope of grey. Cutting down old trees is wrong. Period. In an ideal world, this is how it should be. We should not be cutting down old trees anywhere and especially in smog-laden cities such as Delhi. But another truth that we cannot escape is that Delhi is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It is a city where people come to fulfil their dreams, to study, to work.
Delhi needs more housing, schools, and hospitals. What is required is an inclusive planning process, which is currently missing; and, therefore, what needs questioning is not the transplantation policy but the urban planning process in National Capital Regional (NCR). Unless we make the planning process more holistic, we will be fighting to save a few trees and keep losing the bigger environmental battle.
Without going into the details of how the central government is trying to dilute the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, the current EIA framework has been a sham and highly prone to corruption. The biggest flaw is that the project proponent is responsible for carrying out an EIA. In most cases, they look for “agencies” who can help them “fix” the process and obtain the necessary clearances.
We hardly ever see a scientific cost-benefit analysis of any proposed projects, an analysis that considers the various economic, ecological, and social costs of implementing a project. In most cases, the economic advantages are inflated, while ecological costs are not accounted for. Take the recent case of the Char Dham project, which did not consider any of the environmental costs associated with the project, even though it was being implemented in an eco-sensitive zone. The Supreme Court’s recent intervention on the project is clear proof of how the Centre is brazenly ignoring environmental norms.
Delhi has many agencies, and hence, a lot of decisions are not under the purview of Delhi government. For example, the upcoming Central Vista Project has been granted clearance by the MOEF. There have been varying reports of how many trees would be felled for this project. Why is there so much secrecy around the project? Don’t we, the citizens of Delhi, have a right to know the details of such a massive project that will forever change access to the public spaces in central Delhi?
Whether the project should be approved or not is part of the EIA process. Once a project has been approved, the fate of impacted trees has been sealed. It is now that the transplantation policy kicks in. The transplantation policy clearly states that all possibilities should be explored to avoid the felling of the trees. It also states that transplantation would be done over and above the existing norm of compensatory afforestation. The only difference being mandated by the policy is transplantation instead of felling. While we recognise that transplantation is an emerging science, we hope that a stringent policy which mandates 80% survival would also be a catalyst in development of this expertise in the country.
By mandating that at least 80% of the tress be transplanted by a pool of empaneled agency, the policy is actually raising the economic cost of carrying out ecologically ill-conceived projects. This added cost should encourage developers to consider alternatives where minimum trees would be felled. In addition to this, there is provision to involve local community to carry regular social audits of transplanted trees.
Let us create platforms where the state, Centre, civil society groups all come together and make Delhi a green and inclusive city, and, at the same time, not miss the wood for the trees.
Reena Gupta is a lawyer and environment specialist. She is currently a consultant with Delhi government
The views expressed are personal