Opinion

Modi’s Central Vista and a 100 Years of Heritage on Raj Ghat

Trees in the central vista, most of them almost 100 years old, have been contributing – for free of cost –to temperature regulation, rainwater percolation, air and noise pollution reduction, dust removal etc. besides the loss of habitat for urban wildlife including birds and squirrels.

While Delhi is under a lockdown and number of Covid cases spiral upwards, the central vista project has been declared to be an essential service. Work is in full swing to complete the Parliament Building by November next year with space for 1,244 the Rajpath. The Vice President and the Prime Minister’s new houses will be ready by May and December 2022. The exercise to relocate 400 heritage trees have already begun.

Notably, the Government has violated environmental regulations, bypassed mandatory public consultations and pushed through approvals at record speed to complete the estimated Rs 20,000 Crore plus project. It took the UK 10 years to renovate its parliament building but India will take less than three years to complete a far more ambitious project. Though the government of India’s lopsided priority during the pandemic has shocked many, not much attention has been paid to the 400 trees which are being removed to Badarpur in Haryana, 22 kilometres away. How many of them will survive remains to be seen and horticulturists are not convinced that they can be replaced by fresh saplings.

The government says the trees would be re-planted and for every tree uprooted and removed, 10 more saplings would be planted. While critics scoff at such claims and point out that most such plans and platitudes are forgotten within months. It is not known where the fresh 4000 saplings are going to be planted. Where is the space in the concrete jungle of Delhi, which is ranked among the world’s most polluted cities with poor air quality and an acute water shortage?

Two varieties of the Indian black berries, Jamun or Java plums, grew in the Jamun trees in the central vista; the smaller variety maturing in late June and the larger variety later. This summer, however, there will be no Jamun seller to be found with Rajpath dug up and the trees uprooted. Trees in the central vista, most of them almost 100 years old, have been contributing – for free of cost –to temperature regulation, rain water percolation, air and noise pollution reduction, dust removal etc. besides the loss of habitat for urban wildlife including birds and squirrels.

In a recent RTI reply, Delhi Forest Department conceded that no trees census has been conducted in Delhi for the past 10 years and in the NDMC area for the last two decades. Without such a census, how did the government decide to uproot the trees is a question which has remained unanswered.

Pradip Kishen, author of Trees of Delhi (2006) has gone on record to question the ignorance of the architectural firm of Bimal Patel, which is executing the project, about the trees in the central vista. While the firm had claimed that the central vista had banyan, peepul and Ficus trees, Kishen pointed out that barring a few stray trees, he had not seen banyan or peepul trees in the central vista. There were many more Jamun trees, pine, Bistendu and fig trees, planted deliberately to provide canopies to shelter people and to serve a ceremonial purpose.

Why the removal of these heritage trees doesn’t make sense?

Why the removal of these heritage trees doesnt make sense
Modi’s Central Vista and a 100 Years of Heritage on Raj Ghat 3

The proposal to remove possibly hundreds of mature Jamun trees from Central Vista has no scientific basis. Firstly, the idea behind removing these trees is based on the assumption that Jamun trees survive for about 100 years. While the species’ average lifespan maybe 100 years, it is completely unscientific to assume that every individual tree will die in 100 years. Trees can go on living for many more years than their ‘average’ life span. In fact, different trees survive for a different number of years. Averages are estimates, and do not tell you anything about an individual, and must be treated as such. This is akin to saying that since the life expectancy in India is 69 years, all people in the country will die at the age of 69!

But more importantly, this plan does not make any sense because it will lead to the removal of many mature trees several years before they actually die. This is not some kind of prophylactic treatment, where a disease or tragedy will be prevented by removing trees. In fact, this will create a greater ecological crisis in a city already suffering from high levels of air pollution and ground water depletion, amongst other environmental disasters.

The removal of such a large number of trees will completely destroy the ecology of the Central Vista and will have repercussions for the entire city. Many ecosystem services provided by these trees – for free of cost – will be negatively impacted, such as temperature regulation, rain water percolation, air and noise pollution reduction, dust removal etc, not to mention the loss of habitat for urban wildlife including birds and squirrels.

The jamun trees of Central Vista are an entire ecosystem on their own, both culturally and ecologically. They are an integral part of the landscape – who doesn’t remember strolling under these trees on a lazy winter afternoon spent picnicking in these vast lawns? The rights to the fruits were auctioned off, and many of us have fond memories of gorging on these fruits bought from the jamun sellers right there, in Lutyen’s Delhi, in the hot, Delhi summers. Their large canopies provide nesting and roosting space for birds, squirrels, bats and monkeys.

The fruits are relished not only by people, but also form an important part of the diet of many animals. In forests, many frugivorous birds have been observed feeding on jamun including several species of bulbuls, parakeets, barbets, and mynahs, and the delightful Indian white-eye.

Similarly, in cities, there are records of parakeets, koels, barbets, mynahs and squirrels feeding on the astringent fruit. There is no reason to believe that the jamuns of Central Vista support any smaller number of birds and other urban animals. To top it off, the flowers of the tree attract many pollinators including bees, which then go on to pollinate many of our crops and garden plants, including flowers, fruits and vegetables.

It is important to note that fully grown trees, removed en-masse, cannot be replaced by saplings of any size whatsoever. Ecosystems cannot be transplanted, rather they take several decades to grow and mature. Once destroyed, they never regain their former functioning. In this entire plan, it is also unclear as to how the age of the trees will be determined by the design firm.

There are only two fool proof ways to determine a tree’s age – either one knows the exact date when the tree in question was planted, or one can take a sample of the core and count the number of annual rings of growth. While one would need immaculate historical planting records for the former, the latter method is resource-intensive, expensive and causes injury to the tree. Since there are many variables that impact tree growth over several decades, tree age cannot be ascertained by measuring its girth or canopy spread, it can only be guesstimated at best.

The Digpu News Bottomline

The magnificent Jamun trees of Central Vista are worthy of our protection. Diseased and damaged trees should be treated, and only trees that are dying and cannot be saved should be replaced. There is absolutely no rationale for cutting trees in large numbers. This ill-thought-out plan is nothing short of mass murder.

The magnificent Jamun trees of the Central Vista are worthy of our protection. Diseased and damaged trees should be treated, and only trees that are dying and cannot be saved should be replaced. There is absolutely no rationale for cutting trees in large numbers. This ill-thought-out plan is nothing short of mass murder.

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