Delhi’s green lungs — the Ridge — has been constantly under the pressures of urban development. And it was the government’s own agencies, with little or no knowledge of forest conservation, which contributed or caused irreversible damage to the Ridge, if a new book is to be believed.
The 154-page book — titled ‘An Introduction to the Delhi Ridge’ and penned by several top officials and experts of the forest department — also tries to highlight the government’s efforts in preservation and rejuvenation of the Ridge, while also forcefully underlining areas in which the government agencies failed.
The book, planned and edited by forest department head GN Sinha himself, makes a strong case for the department to be given the charge of the entire 7,784-hectare reserve forest, currently controlled by multiple agencies.
‘An Introduction to the Delhi Ridge’, interestingly, has been made public at a time when revelations such as illegal farmhouses and other structures having wiped out about 500 acres of green land in the 4845.57-acre Asola wildlife sanctuary, which is part of southern Ridge, is doing the rounds.
The shrinking of the Ridge, among other things, means desertification, fall of water table fall and more pollution for Delhi.
The Ridge’s history
There is a possibility that the Ridge was at one time continuous, but due to Delhi’s expansion the continuity got wiped out intermittently, Sinha writes in the book’s prologue.
There are records that the Ridge was accorded some degree of protection during the later period of the Mughal rule. The British India’s Gazetteer of Delhi (1883-84) records the presence of a vast faunal diversity in Delhi. The British also made a robust statutory framework by way of notifications, declaring an area of 796.25 hectares in eight villages of Delhi as reserve forest under the provisions of Indian Forest Act, 1878.
Chief conservator of forests, AK Shukla, writes in the book’s epilogue: “With the shifting of Capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the British rulers decided to preserve this natural wealth. They placed parts of the Ridge under the Central Public Works Department’s notified area committee.”
NGOs started raising their voice for the protection of the Ridge in the mid-1980s. Following the Supreme Court’s intervention, the government issued two notifications, one in 1994 and the other in 1996.
Sinha writes that these notifications were issued without prior assessment of the availability of the Ridge land free from encumbrances. In 1995, the government constituted a Ridge Management Board. The rights of claimants could not be settled in entirety.
Sinha’s deputy Shukla writes: “For the notification of 1994, maps and field books with area statements were not available to ascertain the actual area notified. The boundaries were not precise and surveyed. Apart from government land and wasteland, it had other areas as well”.
GOVT DEPARTMENTS TO BLAME?
Making a departure from the unwritten bureaucratic code “don’t criticise your peers”, Shukla in the book has not shied away from calling a spade a spade.
The decision to transfer the Ridge to different departments with little or no knowledge of forest management was taken, most probably, arbitrarily without understanding the gravity of the situation, he writes.
“Multiplicity of authorities caused irreversible damages. Encroachments and illegal transfer of forest land for absolutely non-forestry purposes shrunk the Ridge. Indiscriminate violations to build schools, offices, amusements parks, further contracted the Ridge,” he writes.
“Delhi Development Authority, New Delhi Municipal Council, Central Public Works Department, Sports Authority of India and the Union ministry of defence have, bit by bit, allocated large parts of the forest for non-forest activities”.
But Sinha is hopeful.
“Due to recent interventions by the National Green Tribunal, forest settlement officers have expedited the process of settlement of rights of claimants and hope that the entire process of constitution of reserve forests would be completed soon,” he writes.
Shukla, though, has a piece of advice. “The most important administrative work that would significantly contribute to Ridge conservation will be to hand over control of the entire Ridge to the forest department”.
Conservationist Ravi Agarwal, who had the privilege of reading the book’s manuscript, told HT: “It’s been two decade since the notifications to declare the Ridge a reserve forest were issued. The forest department has failed to demarcate its boundaries. The process of rights settlement is not complete”.
Agarwal, who was also a member of the Ridge Management Board (RMB), said, “All this has led to encroachments both within and on the boundary of the forest land. There has been no biodiversity rejuvenation.”
Agarwal says the RMB is heavily populated by government functionaries. “It has become a land clearance body. Almost all the recent encroachments or land use changes were made by state agencies”.