As a trainee reporter back in the mid-1990s, I remember being asked to get inputs for a story debating whether Green was a passing fad or a permanent agenda. By then, Delhi had already discovered the PIL route. NGOs and activists started filing Public Interest Litigations (PIL) on issues such as the dirty Yamuna, vehicles spewing pollutants, construction inside the Delhi ridge and hazardous industries fouling city’s air and groundwater.
The judiciary did not disappoint. The Delhi high court stopped the DDA from building a road inside the Vasant Kunj forest that had got legal protection as a reserve forest in 1994. The Supreme Court ordered the government to clean the river, introduce unleaded fuel for vehicles, and relocate industrial units out of the city.
It was not easy implementing these orders. Riots broke out in the streets as the city government went about shutting down illegal industries. Owners of buses, taxis and three-wheelers took their vehicles off the road in protest against the switchover to cleaner-burning Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Delhi went without public transport for weeks. But the strong court mandate did not allow the government to buckle.
By 2002, the Capital’s CNG-run public transport became the largest such green fleet in the world. Hazardous factories were also pushed out of city limits. A series of fiascos, however, made the task of reviving the Yamuna appear more difficult than cleaning up the Augean stable. But it seemed that the green agenda was here to stay.
Even election manifestos started promising clean air, fresh water and more greenery.
Yet, environmental concerns could never temper the city’s insatiable hunger for land. India’s most densely populated city, Delhi is short of 1.13 million housing units. For half of its population, this means living in slums or poorly provisioned illegal settlements. Many of these colonies have come up on the riverbed and on the ridge forestland.
Three months to Assembly elections, chief minister Sheila Dikshit in a report released last week justifiably claimed credit for introducing CNG, opening waste disposal plants and bringing birds back to the city. But the damage to the Yamuna floodplain and the ridge forests by regularising illegal habitation were also passed off as achievements. Call it administrative insensitivity or political compulsion, the government has a reason for going soft on the city’s poor who have little choice.
But how can it defend a series of mega sarkari constructions on ecologically protected areas? Every time a structure comes up on the Yamuna floodplain, it is regularised as the last exception. Yet, new ones keep coming up. Delhi Secretariat, Metro stations and loco-sheds, Ring Road bypass and DTC’s Millennium bus depot are all owned by the state.
The ridge board’s biggest challenge is to protect the forest from the government itself. Large tracts of natural forest have given way to landscaped public parks. Regular dumping of construction waste by the DDA has converted parts of the ridge into graveyards. Even the army started building housing quarters on forestland without permission. No wonder that almost 40% of the Delhi ridge forests have disappeared.
Last month, HT had reported how the Public Works Department was constructing a road inside Asola sanctuary in the southern ridge without a statutory clearance from the National Board for Wildlife. Just as the National Green Tribunal ordered the PWD to stop construction, the government came up with another plan to build a hospital inside the Chhattarpur stretch of the urban woodlands.
With half of the world already living in cities, pressure on scarce urban land resources will only increase. Delhi is no exception. But the answer is in redeveloping and repurposing existing areas rather than eating into our precious ridge and riverbed. Because, without air and water security, land alone will not hold Delhi’s growing dreams.