Saving Aravallis: Could we have a beautiful deciduous forest in the middle of Delhi?
In the first of a six-part series on Aravallis, author and environmentalist Pradip Krishen writes that authorities lack expertise or vision to turn the Central Ridge into a truly beautiful dry, deciduous forest from the scrub forest full of Vilaiti Keekar that it is nowdelhi Updated: Sep 26, 2017 14:18 IST
Most evenings when I am in Delhi I take my dogs walking on the (central) Ridge, close to where I live. Timings vary. In mid-September, we start out at 5.15. The heat of the day has dissipated a little, darkness is safely distant. Post-monsoon verdure beckons. I park on the side of a narrow road and plunge in through ranks of tall Abutilon, making a snap decision about which route to take. Sometimes the dogs show me where they want to go. There are several options.
I’ve been doing this for 40 years now, an exquisite ritual that I look forward to almost as much as many generations of my dogs have done. It’s both lovely and sad. Lovely because it is an immeasurable privilege to be able to ramble in this unruly, semi-wild forest of some nine square km in the very heart of Delhi’s urban sprawl. Sad because it could be a lot nicer. Really it could.
Lutyens’ Delhi was planned early last century between the central Ridge and the Yamuna as a new capital city of 57,000 souls. Absurd as this number sounds now, the central Ridge was demarcated as a salubrious ‘amenity forest’, a place for sahibs to ride their horses in. Briefly, perhaps for only a few weeks or so, it seemed the central Ridge would become a really important part of the city because someone took Viceroy Hardinge riding there after the rains, and he was suddenly taken with the idea of placing the Viceroy’s future residence – Government House – on the highest knoll of the Ridge, near Talkatora.
Hardinge wrote excitedly to the architect Lutyens, “Can you imagine how splendid a white Government House with red tiles and a gilt dome would look in such a commanding situation, dominating the whole of the country round, while the slope from the situation of Government House down to the plain would be covered with terraces and fountains like a miniature Versailles?”
Lutyens was still on the boat back to England and harrumphed his disapproval, and the idea soon faded away. The CPWD took charge of the Ridge and created a polo ground, riding trails and the Forest Department was called in to plant suitable species of trees. The Ridge was notified as a Reserved Forest and saplings of eight or nine kinds of trees were planted here. Nothing ‘took’, because the Forest Department chose all the wrong species, nothing that was likely to survive in thin, rocky soil without lots of help, except for one pernicious tree from Mexico (and further south) that came to be called ‘vilaiti keekar’ because it looked a lot like our desi keekar or babool.
And vilaiti keekar prospered and begat more vilaiti keekar. And it outcompeted everything else until it came to completely dominate the Ridge. Which is why we find it so rampant today everywhere you look on the Ridge (and elsewhere).
Could it have been different? Could we have had a truly beautiful dry, deciduous forest in the middle of central Delhi instead of a degraded scrub forest chockful of an invasive tree?
We are only just beginning to glimpse what might have been possible. The ‘discovery’ of Mangar Bani – that wonderful little jewel in the Aravallis just across the Faridabad border – tells us eloquently of how lovely these forests can be when their natural vegetation is protected.
‘If only’ is a sad refrain, and the fact is we are saddled with a ruined forest in the central Ridge for now. “Better than nothing”, they say, and I agree. Vilaiti keekar is a lot better than bare, cleared ground. But is there a possibility that we could coax back a full-blown natural forest on the Ridge? Is it too late and too difficult? Or too expensive?
It is possible to bring back such a forest, and no, it’s not too difficult or expensive but a more frightening possibility looms. Who will do it? Does the Forest Department know enough about dry, deciduous forests to do it well? What about the CPWD? Or one of Delhi’s civic horticulture agencies?
The unvarnished truth is we’re stuck for now because not one of these organisations has even the glimmer of the expertise, imagination or vision to achieve anything as ambitious as this. We are better off without inviting them in with their blunt tools and outmoded ideas. Ironically, vilaiti keekar is keeping the idea incubating.
One day, however, I hope the time will come. A group of dedicated people who combine design skills with ecological knowledge, passion with purpose. We may have to wait a long time. So long that you and I may not see it. But it is worth knowing that the central Ridge waits, in prospect. We can dream of an immense and lovely natural forest in the heart of New Delhi, the best and most beautiful urban forest of any capital city in the whole world. One day.
Pradip Krishen is an author and ecological gardener.