It is not often that a single situation graphically illustrates paradigms of good governance as well as its absence. A few days ago, I had an experience that both gladdened and saddened me, and has lessons for the future.
One of the few forms of exercise I get, and really look forward to, is an hour’s walk every morning. Over time, our motley gang of walkers have developed a unique bonhomie and solidarity. A few days ago, one of them took me to the plot adjoining the Siri Fort Sports Complex where I found, to my horror, several trees cut down and a big tree falling to the ground even as I arrived. To see magnificent and ancient species being mercilessly chopped generates emotions not easy to describe. Shortly thereafter, I telephoned both Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and the Lieutenant-Governor Tejinder Khanna to apprise them of my anguish.
Now the paradigm of good and responsive governance. I was able to get both these high authorities personally on the line. Both were extremely patient and sympathetic. Both promised to have the matter looked into. The felling was immediately halted. At the end of a busy day, I had calls from the L-G awaiting me. I also had calls from the DDA engineer concerned. The next day, I got calls from the Chief Minister and an early morning visit by the engineer, with a detailed map of the area and all the information. Within two days, the indiscriminate tree-felling was temporarily halted. Ultimately, approximately 200 trees were saved and the project in question was allowed to proceed with minimum future felling.
Clearly, this was possible only because of the sympathetic approach of both the CM and the L-G, their prompt action, their accessibility and their genuine concern, which led to them monitoring the events.
Now the bad news. This sensitivity and concern is rare and does not percolate to other levels of the administration. Otherwise, why would anyone have approved a bypass road from the sports complex to the main road if it involved the felling of hundreds of trees. If you see the site — and I have done so in detail — there is absolutely no doubt that the badminton and squash stadia proposed to be built there for the Commonwealth Games require no such road. Easy access is available from the sports complex itself.
Second, whoever decided to make the road treated an existing wall nearby as static and unchangeable, but hundreds of trees as removable! Two hundred trees have now been saved by the simple expedient of demolishing this wall and preserving the trees as a central verge to be flanked on each side by the bypass road. Why it needed the L-G and CM’s intervention to do this defies explanation.
Third, equally inexplicable was the act of cutting trees along the periphery and edge of the plot. Assuming that the stadia and roads had to be built, there could possibly be no reason to chop trees that did not come in their way. It is obvious that the person who made the decision just did not bother to tailor his needs to ground realities.
Fourth, the buzzword about compensatory afforestation is misleading. The reality is that the trees I saw being cut were all — repeat all — decades-old, thick, giant, magnificent species, having been home to birds and other bio-diversity for decades. The habitat has supported peacocks, parrots, pigeons, bulbuls, barbets, woodpeckers, kingfishers, hornbills, mynas, wagtails, jungle babblers, koels, doves, owls and many more species. By contrast, the trees planted even 10 years ago in the same complex are silver oaks or casuarinas, which look like apologies before the mighty giants which were being felled. The proposal to fell perfectly healthy trees, with several years of life remaining, and replace them with a species that may not even survive struck me as depressingly apposite.
What Commonwealth Games are we talking about? Are these Games of any relevance if this ‘common wealth’ of yours and mine does not exist in Delhi? If the main Games village miles away already has vast infrastructure and if the Siri Fort complex already has several badminton and squash courts, why was it necessary to decimate an entire forest plot for a few more facilities? And why could not a few stadia be located in the middle of the forest, with a meandering walking path of a few furlongs, instead of decimating trees to build a bypass road to bring VIP cars and security right to the door of the proposed facility? Would these VIPs and the Commonwealth organisers not be the first to be horrified at such mindless desecration, if they only knew about it?
And has not the statute that permits tree-felling become a legitimating process for such illegality all over the country because of the macro-paper permissions given by anonymous bureaucrats with no information about the ground reality, and which are implemented by zombies with no sensitivity and who don’t even attempt to find the least intrusive alternative?
These are questions that these voiceless trees with no spokesperson ask as we end decades of their existence within seconds for temporary urban desires. We can continue to ignore them. But these are also questions of good governance, which no responsive society with a conscience can afford to ignore, except at its grave peril.
Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate, Supreme Court