Parks and recreation wilt in face of civic cash crunch in Delhi
The issue has found its way to the election manifestos of the BJP and AAP ahead of the December 4 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls
Nearly 17,000 parks and gardens dot the national capital, significantly more than any other Metro in the country. But these are spread unevenly. South-east and west Delhi fare the best, with a green cover of 8.1% and 6.6% respectively. The congested quarters of north-east Delhi are significantly worse-off, with a green cover of just 1.2%.
The proliferation of such open, green patches is key for any metropolis, but is also essential for Delhi given the city’s nearly year-round pollution problem.
And yet, most of the Capital’s parks — 15,229 of which are operated by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) — are in a poor state, bogged down by a cash-starved civic body that has nowhere near enough staff to maintain the swathes of green areas under its ambit.
Further, public spaces can be a key revenue source for the city’s civic body, with open gyms, picnic spots, and community centres (all of which are largely built around parks), in high demand, but low supply.
To be sure, Delhi’s erstwhile civic bodies started a series of projects to revive the parks and community centre ecosystem, including building two “Waste to Wonder” parks, four children’s parks, and expanding open gym infrastructure. However, low maintenance standards and little quality control have kept residents at a distance from these facilities.
Vikas Arya, a resident of Lajpat Nagar 2, said parks in his area in desperate need of attention.
“They need regular watering, de-weeding and the crumbling infrastructure needs to be fixed,” said Arya.
This May, a Delhi government survey found that around 6,354 parks (run by all agencies), out of 11,500 parks checked, were not being maintained and were not allocated the funds required for adequate upkeep.
No surprise then, that the issue has found its way to the election manifestos ahead of the December 4 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls.
First, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which hopes to wrest control of Delhi’s civic body from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 15-year-long grip — included beautifying parks as one of its 10 promises if voted to power.
“MCD has neglected all its parks. It is my dream to turn Delhi into a city of parks and we will make these parks beautiful once again,” said Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, as he unveiled his party’s manifesto on November 11.
Detailing the party’s plans, AAP spokesperson Reena Gupta said they aim to involve resident welfare associations (RWAs) to focus on parks and community centres.
“We are already providing financial assistance to RWAs to beautify and maintain parks, but the government will also take inputs from them to make changes and upgrades when required,” she said.
The BJP in its manifesto promised to upgrade civic parks by opening 10,000 open gyms and yoga huts by 2023, apart from building six more themed parks and 1,000 water bodies in existing municipal parks.
Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta pointed to the Waste to Wonder parks, which he said were built despite the limited resources.“We will build more such parks. We have also rejuvenated the parks in Delhi, have installed open gyms in thousands of parks in Delhi and increased the greenery in these areas. We have also carved out jogging tracks,” he said.
MCD’s recycling focus
In one of its flagship projects, the civic body has utilised waste at junkyards to turn dilapidated parks into public recreational spaces, with the first such facility set up in Sarai Kale Khan.
The park, built for around ₹7.5 crore, was opened up in February 2019 and till June this year, has collected ₹10.5 crore in revenue since then, bringing the cash-strapped MCD much-needed funds, but also a key indicator of the monetary potential of such attractions.
Nandan Van in Greater Kailash-2 , a children’s park that houses multiple rides, swings and cartoon character statues, the Bharat Darshan Park in Punjabi Bagh, which gives residents a glimpse of India’s famous monuments through replicas, or the Charti Lal Goel Heritage Park near Chandni Chowk – built to showcase Mughal architecture, are all examples of MCD widening its “waste-to-art” approach.
Arya, however, said agencies should first tend to local parks.
“Novel parks can be created later, once neighbourhood parks have been taken care of,” he said.
Another problem is the widely inequitable access to green spaces.
An analysis by CYCLE India, a Delhi-based NGO, this August found that a majority of Delhi’s parks and gardens are concentrated in just five of the city’s 11 districts.
Parks covered around 8.1% of the total area of South-east district, followed by west Delhi, where they covered 6.6% of the total area.
The third highest was east Delhi (6.3%), while South and New Delhi districts had parks and gardens on 6% of their area each.
So there are areas with several parks, areas with some parks, and then there’s north-east Delhi. The congested region has parks on just 1.2% of its area, showed the study.
North and south-west Delhi fared only marginally better, with 2.3%.
The NGO used data from the Delhi Parks and Gardens Society (DPGS) as well as Geospatial Delhi Limited (GSDL) to create a digital map of Delhi’s parks.
The civic bodies have also had a hard time watering their parks, with old borewells sealed under National Green Tribunal (NGT) orders.
In 2021, the corporations wrote to the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and revenue department to stop the sealing drive till alternative infrastructure for use in horticulture is developed.
An MCD official also said using tankers to supply treated water is neither cost-effective nor feasible, since most civic parks are located inside colonies.
Chandra Bhushan, CEO at iForest, a non-profit environmental research group, said the Indian town planning guidelines under the Union ministry of urban development detail the need to have parks, open spaces and playgrounds for people in every city. However, he said, poor planning has been the key factor behind unequal distribution.
“An area over 5% percent under parks is good, but one needs the right mix of parks, gardens, open spaces and forested areas. Delhi has a lot of forest cover as well, but the problem has been the lack of planning, since Delhi has slowly developed over the last decades. There is ample green space in central and New Delhi as the Lutyens’ region was a planned area. However, with the city slowly stretching out wide, more and more unplanned development took place, which has unfortunately not given the same importance to parks,” said Bhushan.
Fayaz Khudsar, scientist-in-charge of the city’s seven biodiversity parks, said green spaces are crucial in a polluted city like Delhi.
“The corporation will have to focus on improving the quality of blue-green infrastructure with canopies and rich micro-biomes, which are also important for public health and to control exposure to particulate matter,” he said.
Blue infrastructure refers to water systems like ponds, lakes and wetlands, while green refers to trees, parks, gardens and forest). Together, the term blue-green infrastructure refers to the combined development and maintenance of these elements in urban settings.
Paras Tyagi, an environmental activist, who runs CYCLE India, said MCD parks in areas with little green cover are the need of the hour.
“That is the long-term goal, but the existing parks need to be spruced up first,” he said.
“Councillors inaugurate several parks, but no funds are put to use to make them clean or green. In a lot of cases, social functions are held in these parks itself, even as the community centre next to it lies unutilised,” said
An MCD official said that while efforts are underway to keep these green spaces well-maintained, the use of water from sewage treatment plants (STPs) in these parks, instead of from borewells, has been a challenge.
“New plants are also being set up to water parks, but it takes time and money. Using water tankers is not cost-effective and a number of these parks are located within colonies, where taking tankers is also not feasible due to narrow lanes,” said the official.