Sustainable air quality: How Delhi lost the plot – part 2

India’s capital Delhi has expanded at a phenomenal rate during the last two decades. Presence of economic opportunities in and around the city and lack of it in the hinterland, forced hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to migrate here and turn it into a teeming metropolis.
The city, governed by the national government, was turned into a state with separate funds and its own state government with limited powers in 1993. Many years before that, another administrative entity was created to cater to the needs of a growing national capital. This was called National Capital Region (NCR).
NCR comprises, among others, four satellite towns adjacent to the city – Gurgaon, Faridabad, NOIDA and Ghaziabad. The first two are located in the state of Haryana and the last two in the state of Uttar Pradesh. All the four cities were few kilometres away from the National capital’s boundary but now have almost merged with the capital city due to exponential expansion.
The idea of NCR was to bring all the cities under one administrative unit so that there can be a consistency in planning and execution of development work. However, this could never be done because of bureaucratic hassles and lack of political will. No one wanted to leave their clout on a piece of land and the revenue it earned.
Still the government in Delhi did take some bold steps to deal with the threat of air pollution. They closed down polluting factories in the middle of the town, asked many of them to relocate, forced public transport to shift from diesel to CNG (compressed natural gas) and initiated a massive green campaign.
Yet all the benefits that could have been accrued were lost over the years due to lack of coordination in planning between Delhi and other satellite towns, rampant and unchecked urbanisation, massive migration and mindless destruction of natural habitat.
In last one decade between 2001 and 2011 the population of Delhi alone grew from 13.85 million in 2001 to 16.8 million in 2011. Satellite towns witnessed a similarly explosive if not identical growth in the number of resident.
This mass migration gave rise to the biggest industry of all – real estate. Land was at a premium as everyone wanted to have a roof over their head. This led to a huge construction boom to accommodate growing number of residents. While the satellite towns have mainly witnessed development in residential quarters and office blocks, Delhi has seen a massive push in infrastructure building too.
In the first decade of 21st century in order to host the Common Wealth Games 2010 the city saw a spurt in infrastructure building. Road widening, fly-overs, metro rail network expansion, building of new stadiums, residential complexes, hotels, a new airport and refurbishing of old buildings came with their share of side effects. This unprecedented construction activity not only led to felling of trees, destruction of parks and green spaces as well as wetland but also increased the level of dust particles in the air.
The metro construction alone has led to felling of 15000 trees by a conservative estimate. Every day the Public Works Department, the Delhi Development Authority and other builders seek permission to cut down trees. Sometimes trees are cut without seeking permission as was the case in a locality, Vasant Kunj, where recently more than 150 trees were maimed and slashed to widen the road.
Similarly last year Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructural Development Corporation (DSIIDC) sought to permission from the forest department to cut 7000 trees to create a residential complex for the economically weaker section of the society. The permission is still pending in the forest department but won’t stay there for long as the pressure to accommodate “poorer” sections will prevail over any ecological concerns.
The compensatory afforestation rule imposed by the Delhi government says that for every tree that is cut the department or the individual has to plant 10 saplings. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult as there is no land left to plant that many number of trees. More so there is no authoritative study to find out the impact and status of compensatory plantation. Whether the plants are surviving or not and if yes than how many?
Add to this the growing need to accommodate burgeoning population has been straining the capital’s as well as NCR forest reserves. The Delhi ridge which is considered to be the capital’s lungs is under severe threat from encroachers and despite Supreme Court’s repeated orders and threats the encroachments have neither been removed nor strict actions has been taken against the offenders.
In the late 1990s Delhi administration did a phenomenal job of reclaiming mines and wasteland to create green cover. The department of environment in Delhi University and its scientists worked in stone quarries in the ridge area and reclaimed them by growing dense forest.
While the pilot project succeeded, the original forest is under threat. The Delhi government has been lax in controlling construction in the ridge area. The adjacent state of Haryana, under the influence of builder lobby, is trying to dilute all the forest laws to reclaim the forest land on the Aravalli range that is part of South Delhi and Gurgaon and provide the much needed green cover. Even when the government has declared the ridge area as protected forest 20 years ago, 150 illegal colonies have come up on the forest land due to political connivance.
While it is true that the Indian Environment Ministry’s report have waxed eloquent on Delhi’s efforts to increase its green cover (and it has reported that it grew from 22 square kilometres in 1993 to 299.58 square kilometres in 2009) the built-up area in the National Capital Region, which includes residential, non-residential, landfill sites and other have also increased by 34.6 per cent from 1999-2012.
This has happened mostly at the expense of green areas and water bodies which have gone down by 22.5 per cent and 5.9 per cent, respectively. The area under the “others” category, which include stone quarrying, brick kiln, has also increased by 159.59 per cent from 10,243 hectare to 26,590 hectare. These are the statistics presented by a study on land use change undertaken by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and commissioned by the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) for review of Regional Plan-2021.
The study says that the green areas have gone down from 1,45,453 hectare to 1,12,683 hectare registering a decrease of 32,769 hectare, a dip of 22.5 per cent. Similarly, the area under the water bodies has decreased by 5.9 per cent from 24,583 hectare to 23,119 hectare. The wastelands, which include gullied land, saline land, waterlogged, barren, rocky and river sand, have also gone down by 19.6 per cent from 2,91,931 hectare to 2,34,613 hectare.
The increasing problem of waste disposal has also been dealt in a lackadaisical manner. Many water bodies especially the Bhalswa Lake are now dying due to dumping of waste. The city on the eastern boundary has now extended up to the landfill in Ghazipur creating health hazards for the residents.
Data proves that one of the two departments (Environment Ministry or the NCRPB) is not telling the truth. It is true that a lot of areas which were under dense tree cover have seen rampant destruction of tree cover and urban heat islands and their area have increased in the last 5 years.
With all the cities, within the NCR, planning their own master plans for next 10 to 15 years, there is always an overlap in terms of plans as well as conflict of interest in land use and environment outlook. This confusion compounded by pressure exerted from powerful real estate lobby has steadily eroded Delhi’s gains in environment protection of the NCR.
Migration can’t be stopped in a democratic country like India. But governance can fill the gap by strictly saving the green cover and the water bodies. It can also be circumspect in initiating development projects in areas where green cover is under threat.

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About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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