Delhi losing its trees due to lack of census, violation of rules

Delhi: 9 Dec, 2021 (Hindustan Times)

The trees may not be marked in building plans approved by the corporations -- which means many of them can be cut down, usually without permission.

 

Delhi losing its trees due to lack of census, violation of rules.

Delhi could be losing thousands of trees every year -- thanks to the absence of a tree census and faulty implementation of existing laws.

The trees may not be marked in building plans approved by the corporations -- which means many of them can be cut down, usually without permission.

The violations were recently detected by the south division of the forest department, which has since then written a letter to the three corporations, pointing out that according to the unified building bye laws (UBBL), 2016, it is mandatory to mark all features within the site plan of a house or a building, including drains, wells and trees.

Yet, few mark trees, both within the boundary walls or just outside, and as a result, the forest department claimed, many trees are going missing -- being cut down without any permission being sought.

In the letter, dated October 14, Amit Anand, the deputy conservator of forest (DCF), south, said corporations also need to avoid giving approval to multiple entrances or gates in a new construction as each entrance means trees around it need to be cut down. HT has seen a copy of the letter.

If trees inside the plot are duly marked in the site plan (as expected to), the tree officer while looking at a tree felling application could effectively save some trees.

“Hence, trees can be saved from unnecessary felling. Further, your esteemed organisation can also rationalise the number of trees to be affected by a project by realigning the design based on existing trees in the area,” he added in his letter.

Anand said the problem was not limited to houses alone, but larger construction projects too. “We have had to send back a number of plans recently as they did not show the trees within and outside the boundary wall of the site. In order to decide how many trees can be saved, we first need to know how many trees exist in the first place.”

In the absence of a government tree census, activists and environmentalists across the capital have so far been relying on smaller, local-level census of trees to keep track . Concretization and construction are the biggest obstacles in protection of trees. Vallari Sheel, an environmental scientist and urban ecologist who carried out a tree census in 2015-16 in Vasant Vihar, said 80% the trees in neighbourhood were heavily concretised (surrounded by concrete). Sheel counted a total of 4,993 trees, out of which 3,859 trees were found to be heavily concretised.

This year, she is again revisiting those trees to get an updated count after a Delhi High Court order asked for trees to be deconcretised and a fresh census to be carried out. According to her, trees are missing at a number of places.

“Concretization was the key issue highlighted in the first census and we have observed that each year, 10-15 trees can fall across neighbourhoods simply because they are heavily concretised and cannot withstand strong winds and heavy rain,” Sheel said. “We are also visiting trees that we marked during the 2016 census and we are finding them missing, particularly outside new constructions and houses that were renovated since 2016. Trees which could have been preserved inside are cut down to utilize maximum area and outside, the trees are cut down to maximize on parking space.” .

Sarvodaya Enclave, which saw Delhi’s first tree census in 2012, also found 77 trees to be missing seven years later, when a fresh count was carried out in 2019. Padmavati Dwivedi, a tree activist who led the count, says it is not surprising that trees were found to be missing with no agency willing to follow the law.

“The building design should be such that existing trees are protected and involved in the existing plan, but instead, almost all trees are being cut down,” said Dwivedi, adding that the government itself has not kept a track of Delhi’s trees. “A government tree census would have meant each tree numbered would be in its records, but this is not the case and the forest department has to rely on citizen efforts.”

Others are relying on satellite imagery to identify trees that have possibly been cut down without permission. Verhaen Khanna, founder of the NGO New Delhi Nature Society (NDNS) has been comparing satellite images from Google maps to determine trees that are going missing in his neighbourhood of New Friends Colony.

“Whenever there is a new construction happening, the tree is often cut down without permission and even when permission is sought, the tree is shown to be obstructing things in some manner and deemed dangerous, even when there is nothing dangerous about it. This way, even legally, a healthy tree can be cut down,” said Khanna.

Residents keeping track of trees getting cut also say there have been instances of permission letters being forged or faked in order to remove a tree obstructing a possible parking space. In Defence colony, a local resident, Rajeev Suri, had to file a complaint with the Delhi Police after two trees – an Alstonia and an Ashoka tree were cut down with the help of a ‘permission letter’. However, after verifying the details with the forest department, he found out no such permission had been given. “This is another modus operandi that is emerging -- fake or forged permission letters are being used to cut perfectly healthy trees,”said environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari, another resident of Defence Colony.

A senior South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) official associated with the layout and building plan approval process said the responsibility to mark trees lay with the forest department, with the UBBL not specifying a need to earmark trees either.

“It is an offence to cut down trees without required sanction but the forest department is the primary agency responsible for its enforcement,” the official said.

Despite repeated requests, senior officials from North and East MCD did not respond to requests seeking comment.