To chop or not to chop? The five-year wait to cut this tree species in Delhi

Published on Mar 03, 2022 03:26 PM IST

Delhi’s forest and wildlife department may now be able to start the restoration plan, which involves killing the vilayati kikar, a species that drains the area of its resources

The plan to remove vilayati kikar was first announced during the Budget speech in 2017 by deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. (Ravi Choudhary/HT File Photo) PREMIUM
The plan to remove vilayati kikar was first announced during the Budget speech in 2017 by deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. (Ravi Choudhary/HT File Photo)

New Delhi: Announced with much fanfare in 2017 as part of the Budget speech which saw the Delhi government allocate 50 lakh to remove the invasive tree species Prosopis juliflora (vilayati kikar) from the central ridge as part of a pilot project — not a single tree is yet to be removed, nearly five years on. To add to these woes, an ecological restoration plan devised for the central ridge in the following year which aimed at planting native species inside, has also failed to take off, with an expert committee appointed by the Delhi government last year still at loggerheads, unable to decide which trees will be suitable for the ridge, or how vilayati kikar needs to be removed, if at all.

Delhi’s forest and wildlife department may now be able to start the plan next month, after writing to the Delhi government to give them permission to carry out a pilot project in a 10-hectare area of the forest, without requiring approval from the expert committee, officials said.

The plan to remove vilayati kikar was first announced during the Budget speech in 2017 by deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, stating that not only was the tree preventing other species from growing in Delhi’s ridge areas, but was also sucking Delhi’s groundwater dry, owing to its deep roots.

An ecological restoration plan was added to this existing plan, which aimed to beautify the ridge with native species, with the overall project finally receiving a nod from the Delhi Cabinet in February, 2021. However, no plantation work could be carried out this monsoon season. The Delhi government generally does not plant new saplings during the winter, when the survival rate is at its lowest.

Differences in opinion added to delays

Professor CR Babu, head of the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystem (CEMDE) and part of the expert committee on the project, has since resigned from the committee. He cited “differences of opinion” with the other committee members, which includes the principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF), Ishwar Singh, environmentalist Pradip Krishen, adviser to the Delhi government, Reena Gupta and environmentalist Suditya Sinha, and says progress could not be made on the project, as certain committee members are unwilling to let the project continue.

“I was unable to agree to unrealistic and unscientific suggestions made by other committee members. I resigned from the committee as members who did not have experience in restoring a degraded ecosystem and removing invasive species, were not allowing us to go ahead with the project. We could also not agree on the trees to plant,” Babu told HT.

Forest officials, working closely on the project said while committee members had so far been able to decide which species are to be grown in the rocky Aravalli terrain of the central ridge, a major contention remained, whether the vilayati kikar needs to be removed at all, to restore the central ridge.

Environmentalist Pradip Krishen, who is also the author of the book Trees of Delhi, says the entire project was initially aimed at removing vilayati kikar, with committee members now back-tracking on the need to remove the tree altogether. “The restoration project cannot be carried out if vilayati kikar is not removed. Members don’t wish to remove it to retain Delhi’s green cover, but they don’t realise the plan to prune its top branches and allow other species to grow is unsustainable as its leaves and roots secrete alkaloids which will not allow other tree species to grow around it,” said Krishen, stating suggestions made by Babu to plant native species included a list of tree species which do not grow in the central ridge.

“Trees such as Khejri, and those found growing in Rajasthan were suggested for the central ridge. Committee members opposed that as the ecology and the moisture-demand in Delhi will be quite different to the southern Aravallis near Rajasthan and Gujarat,” he said. Krishen has suggested removing vilayati kikar by hand, instead of using earthmovers, stating the move will not only damage ground-level vegetation, but also disturb microbes in the soil.

The plan moving ahead

The plan which was approved last year by the Delhi Cabinet in February of 2021, gave the approval to revive 423 hectares (over 1,000 acres) of the forest in seven phases. Phase-I, a 100-hectare patch along Sardar Patel Marg, opposite hotels Taj and ITC Maurya will be the first to be redeveloped.

The forest department in its updated proposal, shared with the Delhi government in January, 2022, has asked for a pilot project to be carried out in a 10-hectare area of the forest first, where the upper branches and canopy of the vilayati kikar will be pruned, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the surface, where native species are to be planted.

A senior forest official, speaking on condition of anonymity, however, said the department was unwilling to cut vilayati kikar completely, as it would not only be a violation of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, but also reduce Delhi’s green cover.

“Even when they are invasive trees, they are still trees that produce oxygen. We cannot go against the law and hack them completely or uproot them, as certain committee members have suggested. It is possible the forest conservation act, 1980, may also apply on the central ridge and this will be a lengthy process, so it is easier to proceed with the plan to prune vilayati kikar from the top and simply plant other trees,” said the official.

Navneet Srivastava, deputy conservator of forest (west), under whose jurisdiction the central ridge comes, said the project could not be delayed any further and will now be executed by the forest department, instead of the CEMDE, which was to carry out the pilot earlier. “Since the committee members could not come to a uniform decision, we have decided to proceed with the project ourselves. We have written to the government and if permission is received, we can begin the pilot project in March itself,” he said.

The central ridge restoration project will oversee an ecological revival of the central ridge, with only natural walkways and animal safaris to be allowed inside the forested area. No permanent structures will be permitted inside, with adjacent parks such as the Talkatora Garden and the Buddha Jayanti Park to put to use to create a 'circuit' through which visitors are able to travel from the forest area to nearby parks.

Among the parks and green patches that will connect with the forest area to create a green circuit, include Talkatora Garden, the Bhuli Bhatiyari Park, Buddha Jayanti Park, Bhagwan Mahavir Vanasthali Park as well as the Indian Agriculture Research Institute. In these parks, herbal gardens, gazebos, artificial water bodies, butterfly parks, cycleways and butterfly parks will all be constructed to bring people closer to nature.

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