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Dear Forest Department – Where Are the Native Species in Delhi’s Urban Forests?

Dear Forest Department – Where Are the Native Species in Delhi’s Urban Forests?

The plantation-like look of a so-called city forest in Delhi. Photo: Author provided.

A few days ago, a friend sent me a Times of India article entitled ‘Fresh lungs: Four more forests for Delhi‘. It captured my attention immediately. For one, being a mild asthma patient, I was curious to find out how “fresh” these new forests would make Delhi’s air for my lungs. But more so I have observed Delhi’s ecology and its trees closely over the last couple of years, and I was excited to find out where these forests were being planted and with what species of plants. I opened the article.

The article begins by saying these four forests are an addition to 12 others that have already been planted as a part of the forest department’s efforts to boost Delhi’s green cover. These four new forests are being planned at Aya nagar, Jaunapur, Dera mandi and Mamurpur in Narela. It then goes on to say that each of these forests will include butterfly zones, cacti gardens, water bodies and herbal patches. What a let-down, I thought. A good cactus garden requires specialised expertise and can be designed in a way that is very attractive and interesting for visitors – but to have a cactus garden as a part of a “forest” in Delhi is problematic. It shows how little the forest department understands Delhi’s ecology: because no plant of the cactus family is native to Delhi. In fact, all cacti are native to the Americas.

The article then states that these forests will be dominated by native trees and will also have shrubs and smaller plants. A forest department official (whose name or any other details aren’t mentioned) is quoted saying that they are looking at replicating successful models of city forests, like the Taj Enclave near Geeta colony or Garhi Mandu near Shahdara.

As it happens, the forest department nurseries in Delhi raise no more than five to seven plants that strictly qualify as native to Delhi. I was curious as to which species of plants they had planted in the ‘successful’ model at Taj Enclave; perhaps they’d brought native species from nurseries outside Delhi? I visited the city forest at Taj Enclave to find out.

Taj Enclave city forest was inaugurated by Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. Photo: Author provided

At the entrance, I was greeted by a line of champa and chandni trees. Further along the pathway, on both sides, were rows dominated by shisham and amaltas. Some sections of the pathway in fact had pure strands of straggling sheesham trees on both sides. I noticed that these were densely interspersed with jamun, karanj, amla and katsagon, struggling to grow as they were confined to very small spaces. Guavas, moulmein rosewood, kaner, semal, arjun, bakain and the odd baheda were some other trees I spotted.

It was disappointing. None of these trees – barring arjun, jamun and amaltas – qualify as strictly native to Delhi. Karanj, for example, is a tree native to the tidal flats of coastal India. The quintessential tree katsagon (Fernandoa adenophyllum), which does not belong to Delhi at all but has for some reason found its way in the palette of trees typically planted by our horticulture and forest departments.

If this supposedly “successful model” was going to guide plantations at the four new forests, how could the forest department claim the city forests will be “dominated by native trees”?

Densely planted sheesham trees on both sides of a pathway. Photo: Author provided

Further into my walk, I discovered that species selection was not the forest department’s only failing. Right through the middle of this “city forest” runs a high-voltage power transmission line, through and over more than half the forest’s area. Underneath it are multiple rows of trees constantly kept pruned and dwarfed because otherwise they will grow too tall and interfere with this and other electric lines. This area, with most of its trees maimed and kept artificially short, can’t be called a forest. I also began to question why this particular patch of land had been chosen to plant a “forest” in the first place.

After these initial observations, I was not surprised to find that the park’s aesthetic considerations left much to be desired. The planting itself has been carried out as if the area were a conventional orchard or a timber plantation. Trees have been planted in a grid, in fixed rows with a set gap between them – unlike natural forests anywhere in the world. As I neared the end of my walk, it was clear that the Taj Enclave City Forest bears no resemblance to any real forest at all.

It is dejecting that the forest department does not seem to realise the importance of, and the full potential of, these pockets of small green spaces within the densely packed concrete spaces of Delhi. This city is a mosaic of different microhabitats, and each of them host a different kind of vegetation, a forest of its own.

Taj Enclave, for example, lies in the microhabitat called khadar, the floodplain of the Yamuna river. When planting up this city forest, the forest department’s mandate should have included bringing back the natural forest of the khadar floodplain. The Yamuna khadar is a fragile habitat that has almost completely disappeared from Delhi thanks to human pressures. It would have provided a safe habitat for local wildlife – birds, butterflies, insects and other critters – and also set an example for how a city can keep pockets of its original ecology intact within its urban area.

More broadly, the forest department’s mandate should have been to simply emulate the natural forests of the four new places they are planting up. To plant cacti gardens and separate zones for butterflies in a “city forest” reeks of a gross misunderstanding of ecology, and extends the same boring and manicured aesthetic that we see everywhere in parks around the city. I can’t help but wonder if we are ashamed of our natural forests and our native plant species, so much so that we shy away from growing them. Or are we just too lazy to care any more?

Artificially dwarfed trees under an electric line. Photo: Author provided

A forest, by definition, is a mix of trees, shrubs, grasses, climbers, annuals, etc. that all come together to create an ecosystem – a whole that is much greater than its parts. But there seems to be an obsession with planting only trees when a planting plan for any new forest is being drawn. Where are the native grasses, shrubs and climbers? Officials often dismiss them as “junglee“, “kachra” or “weeds”. There is a board in the Taj Enclave forest that justifies its dense plantation by stating that it “shades soil and smothers weeds”. A forest department that calls a native plant a “weed” does not know its marbles at all. To snub local grasses, annuals and even shrubs by calling them “weeds” is proof of how much we misunderstand our ecology.

There is a lot of room for improvement. We are lucky to be in a city where there are live examples of how beautiful a true city forest can look, like the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon. We also have experts who have already conducted good restoration work. The templates are there right outside our windows. We just need to look.

Somil Daga is an ecological gardener and runs a native plants nursery in Delhi with the Edible Routes Foundation.

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