Delhi is looking to neighbouring states for compensatory afforestation; heres why

Delhi is looking to neighbouring states for compensatory afforestation; here's why

In March, DDA had written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, underlining that all green areas in the city had saturated and there was a severe shortage of land to raise compensatory afforestation for the infrastructure projects

Keeping in view the meagre land in the national capital, the Union Environment Ministry is likely to allow the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to carry out compensatory afforestation for central government projects undertaken in Delhi in the neighbouring states.

In March, DDA had written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), underlining that all green areas in the city had saturated and there was a severe shortage of land to raise compensatory afforestation for the infrastructure projects.

The legal provision

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, forest land can be diverted for development activities like mining, construction of roads and railway lines, as well as for hydropower projects. However, since the diversion could affect the local climate and wildlife, the law has a provision for compensatory afforestation (CA) to account for the ecological and biodiversity loss. It stipulates that compensatory afforestation be carried out by the state government on non-forest land equal in area to the forest land diverted. In case of projects implemented by the Central government or public sector undertakings, CA can also be raised on degraded land twice in extent of the forest area diverted

A case in point

For the construction of the six-lane Delhi-Saharanpur highway by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), more than 5,100 trees will be felled in Delhi. According to the Deputy Conservator of forest (Central), all the 5,104 trees on the deemed forest land will be felled. Some of the species of trees to be felled include Sheesham, Champa, Peepal, Ashok, Neem, Eucalyptus, Kikar and Gular. Its compensatory afforestation will be carried out at NTPC Eco Park, Badarpur, at a cost of Rs 8.66 crore. The Delhi portion of the highway extends from Akshardham NH-9 junction to Delhi’s border with Uttar Pradesh. The project is part of the first phase of Bharatmala Pariyojana, the second-largest highway construction programme in the country under which 50,000 km of roads will be constructed.

However, environmentalists and nature observers claim that most of the non-forest land used for compensatory afforestation in Delhi has neither been declared as protected forest yet, nor has the ownership over it been granted to the Forest Department, leaving large swathes of land used for compensatory afforestation unprotected. A total of 136.55 hectares of land is yet to be notified as protected or reserve forest under Indian Forest Act, an RTI reply revealed.

Compensatory afforestation: The idea

Madhukar Varshney, founder of Rise Foundation and a renowned Delhi-based environmentalist, said: “Compensatory plantation is a sort of ‘greenwash’ because the trees that are removed during developmental projects have a bearing on the ecology of the area. If a development project is undertaken in Dwarka and afforestation drive is carried out in Wazirabad in North Delhi, then the moot idea behind ‘afforestation’ — minimising damage, ‘land for land,’ and ‘tree for tree’ — is negated. There should be better harmonisation with nature. Several countries have implemented ‘nature-based solution’. It is high time for our architects and contractors to adopt such nature-friendly practices.”

Commenting on DDA’s letter, Jamail Ahmad, former deputy director, horticulture department of Delhi government, speaking exclusively to The Federal, agreed that there is indeed a severe shortage of land which could be used for afforestation practices. Explaining the process, he said, there is usually a three-step formula followed while allocating green land for afforestation needs. Firstly, the land department gives us status report: the percentage of green land available and how much of it may be used for compensatory afforestation. Then, it goes to the engineering department, which is entrusted with boundary and delineating works, and finally to the horticulture department, which gives the final go-ahead for afforestation drives.

On the contentious issue of Delhi seeking exclusive permission to use land in neighbouring states for compensatory afforestation, the former official said that environmental regeneration is a holistic and on-going process. “As Delhi is facing the issue of land shortage, carrying out plantation in neighbouring states will eventually aid our conservation fight,” he said. He was also quick to underscore Delhi’s “exceptional performance” in increasing its green cover over the years.

Delhi’s green cover: The data

According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) released by the Union Environment Ministry in January this year, Delhi’s green cover has increased from 21.88 per cent to 23.06 per cent of its geographical area. The city’s tree cover increased from 129 square km in 2019 to 147 square km. The report also showed a slight increase in moderate dense forest in Delhi. Although environmentalists have questioned the assessment and the findings, the report is widely believed to be authentic and accurate when it comes to the assessment of states’ green cover.

What is the exclusive relaxation sought by AAP?

In a letter sent to the Union Environment Ministry in March, DDA cited para 2.3(v) of chapter 2 of the handbook of Forest Conservation Act, which says: “In exceptional cases where non-forest land/degraded forest land, as the case may be, for compensatory afforestation is not available in the same state/ UT in which diversion of forest land is proposed, land for compensatory afforestation can be identified in any other state/ UT.”

Delhi Master Plan

Delhi Master Plan 2041 focuses on the regeneration of old area (unauthorised colonies, urbanised villages) promoting walkability and non-motorised transport, development of green spaces and waterfronts, allowing mixed used development, providing affordable rental housing and small format housing.

NGT’s 10-km order, other ambiguities

In an order on forest clearance for diversion of around 47 hectares of forest land for the construction of a section of National Highway 352W, the green bench had asked the NHAI to find suitable land for compensatory afforestation close to the place where trees are being cut. In its September 2 order, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) noted: “Forest clearance is subject to requirement of the afforestation within 10 km from the place from which trees are cut.” It will be interesting to watch how this particular order will affect the ongoing or upcoming afforestation drives.

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