Land laid bare to prepare for new saplings – a sign of carelessness. Photo: Authors provided.
New Delhi: A massive tree-plantation exercise by the forest department is underway in the confines of the Central Ridge Reserve Forest in New Delhi, away from the eyes of the common person. Last week, environmentalist Pradip Krishen happened to pass by the plantation area during his evening stroll, and what he saw alarmed him. Earthmovers had completely ravaged the entire area and stripped it off its ground cover to make way for young saplings. None of the species planted constituted the natural ecology of the ridge. No thought had been given to how the planting pits could be spaced out and how plants grow in stands and communities in a forest. It was clear that the entire plantation activity was inflicting more harm on the ridge instead of just letting it be.
Pradip Krishen subsequently voiced his concerns, along with Padmavati Dwivedi and Vijay Dhasmana. The forest department then responded with several counterclaims (Times of India reported the exchange on October 2). As members of the citizens’ group that visited the Central Ridge to inspect the plantation, we would like to point out the flaws in these counterclaims, and point to the damage being inflicted on the ridge in the name of “tree plantation”.
The principal chief conservator of forests of Delhi had said that to comply with a high court order to plant trees, smaller shrubs had to be cleared so pits could be dug for saplings that were 6-8 feet high. There is a way by which tree-planting can be carried out without disturbing any existing vegetation. But for a moment let’s assume there is no other way. During our visit, we saw that the pits were about 2.5-3 feet in diameter, with a gap of 6-7 feet between each pit.
Surely only the specific area of 3 feet, where the pits were dug, have to be cleared of the existing vegetation to make way for new saplings? But the patches we visited were completely cleared of all existing vegetation. Essentially, the land was now bare. In a forest, where the invasive Prosopis juliflora has taken over more than 90% of tree cover, the primary remnants of native vegetation are smaller shrubs, climbers, herbs and ground covers, and only a few trees. The forest department’s mandate is to first protect existing, native species of plants before carrying out any sort of planting work – not the other way around.
Second, the site provided ample evidence of the wanton use of an earthmover. However, the forest department official refuted the allegation, that the land was prepared with the use of heavy machinery. He said that most of the work was carried out manually, with earthmovers used only where required – in places where the stratum was hard and rocky, and a pit had to be dug for saplings. A quick glance at the area suffices to show this is simply not true. One can clearly see the marks of a bucket-and-loader earthmover, even in patches where the substrate isn’t rocky.
In patches that have a rocky substrate, there is another way by which planting can be carried out without completely decimating the existing vegetation. In the creation of Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur, planting pits were dug manually using hammers and chisels in a rocky outcrop of rhyolite, a rock that is extremely hard and much tougher to work compared to quartzite, the rock that forms the substrate of the Central Ridge. No earthmovers were used.
There is also a very good example of this in our backyard: the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon – where a former mine, primarily composed of quartzite, was restored with native vegetation without any damages to the existing vegetation. Our forest department could have taken its cue from these successful models, to emulate the simpler, more harmless techniques to dig pits without ravaging the land thus.
The same official refuted allegations that the species chosen by the forest department were inappropriate, and maintained that they had been chosen according to the court order. The species that the court order lists are gular, kadamba, pilkhan, jamun, bargad, mango, amaltas, mahua, putranjiva, badh, sagwan, safed siris, kala siris, anjeer, kathal, arni, bistendu, rohida, medsinghi, palash, hingot, ronjh and khejri. The species that the forest department has planted are gular, kadamba, jamun, sagwan, badh, kassod, siris, maulshri, pilkhan and putranjiva.
But while the forest department has chosen most, not all, its species according to the court order, there is still a major problem: these species do not form a part of the natural forest of the ridge. Jamun and gular, for example, love moisture and naturally grow near streams and river banks. But the ridge is made up of thin, rocky, dry soils that have little moisture for the most part of the year. Both jamun and gular, therefore, aren’t adapted to grow on the ridge, and they will not survive unless they are fed water continuously for the rest of their lives. Surely we don’t expect to irrigate our forests?
This way, the high court’s imperfect list results in the forest department’s even more imperfect actions. Is there any level of government we can rely on to care for and make good choices for our environment?
There is only one way to evaluate the ‘correctness’ of the choice of species while planting on the ridge: choosing plants that have evolved naturally, over thousands of years, to inhabit and thrive in this area. If any trees are to be planted on the ridge, they must be the native species. Anything else will not survive and even inflict irreversible damage to the area.
You might be surprised to know that the list of plants in the court order already has a few species that are native to the ridge: palash, arni, bistendu, amaltas, hingot and ronjh can be seen on the ridge even today, albeit in a fragile state (because of the invasion of P. juliflora). But the forest department has not picked many of them to repopulate the ridge’s forest. Roheda and khejri could qualify as native too.
The tallest claim
The Times of India article provides this quote from an official in the ‘environment department’: “the scheme of plantation is such as to allow the ridge’s species to accelerate ecological restoration.” Ecological restoration, simply put, is the process of recovering a degraded and damaged ecosystem, and bringing it back to its original state. One of the steps of this process involves studying the ecology of a degraded ecosystem, understanding what the land would have looked like before it was degraded, ascertaining the plant species and communities that would have occupied specific niches in the area, such as hill-top, hill-side, riparian, deep-soil species, etc. This kind of study demands care and attention. However, how does one undertake ecological restoration by introducing plants that never evolved to grow there in the first place?
To call the current planting scheme “ecological restoration” speaks volumes about the gross ineptitude that exists in our environment and forest departments. And it is a bitter irony that our forest department, of all departments, colossally misunderstands our forests.
As Pradip Krishen has often said, the Central Ridge holds tremendous potential to create a wonderful and truly sustainable forest – perhaps the biggest natural forest inside any city anywhere in the world. A careful scheme of ecological restoration on the ridge requires ecologists, architects, designers and relevant government departments to come together, chalk out a plan and then execute it with precision. Delhi’s forest department does not at this moment possess the expertise or experience to restore this degraded ecosystem. Most of all, it simply doesn’t possess the requisite humility to collaborate with citizen groups and work with local ecologists.
Under these circumstances, it is best to leave the forest as is, instead of damaging it further, and irreversibly so.
Somil Daga and Fazal Rashid are ecological gardeners. They run a native plants nursery in Delhi with the Edible Routes Foundation.