No to afforestation

ON JULY 23, Delhi's development minister Sahib Singh Verma kicked off the state government's afforestation drive from Jaunapur village in Mehrauli block. However, indignant at being forced out of the area and suddenly losing their traditional rights over the land, the villagers tried to block the minister's path, leading to lathi charges and arrests.

The residents of the south Delhi village claim that the 100 hectares on which 100,000 trees are to be planted had been traditionally used by them for growing crops and as grazing land for their cattle. Says Jaunapur resident Roop Chand, whose buffaloes used to graze in the area, "These big politicians just want to deprive us of our land on the pretext of planting trees. They ride roughshod over poor people who have no say."

Launched with much fanfare, the government's plan to plant 56.5 lakh trees on 2,200 ha throughout the city by the end of the current financial year is aimed at increasing the Capital's green cover and checking pollution. The ambitious project has the support of the Union ministry of environment and forests.

D C Khanduri, deputy conservator of forests, Delhi, however, points out that land to be greened is under various agencies. Common village land (gaon sabha land) is under the Delhi Administration (DA), which has the largest target of planting 10 lakh saplings in 20 villages. The Delhi Development Authority and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi plan to plant 9 lakh and 8 lakh saplings, respectively, in parks, along roads and the Yamuna. Some areas are looked variously after by the Public Works Department, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, the Central Public Works Department and the Delhi Water Supply and Sewage Disposal Undertaking.
Green brigades "People's support is being enlisted by involving students in tree planting drives and through the paryavaran vahinis (green brigades) formed by the Delhi government with the help of NGOs, who have been asked to adopt various colonies for greening," says Khanduri. "The problem area is the gaon sabha land, which is administered by block development officers of DA. Not only has it been used by villagers till now, but there is heavy encroachment on this land," he states. The boundaries are also not clearly demarcated.

According to Verma, "One reason for undertaking tree plantation in areas such as Jaunapur is to counter the large-scale encroachment. The encroachers have even been known to sell off government land, most of which is prime property." To prevent encroachment, the flood and irrigation department of the city government has also been fencing this land.

But, former sarpanch Devia Pradhan says that caste politics played a major role in the decision to take over Jaunapur's land for greening. "Verma has always been out to get us because most of the farmers in this block are Gujjars, while he is a Jat," he alleges. Brahm Singh Kanwar, Bharatiya Janata Party mla from Mehrauli constituency, concurs. "Our mla is part of the group that opposes chief minister Madan Lal Khurana," Pradhan says. Sajjan Kumar, Congress mp from the area adds, "This is a deliberate move by the bjp to deprive my constituents of their rights."

It is not as if the villagers are opposed to all government plans for common village land. "We would like the gaon sabha land to be put to good use. The government should construct a hospital or polytechnic institute on it," says 52-year-old Jyoti Bai of Jaunapur. "But it is merely planting trees, which are obviously a source of money for the government. And now they chase us away from the area. The trees are obviously a moneymaking venture for the government."
Villagers sceptical Although Verma says that no plantation in Delhi is being raised for commercial purposes and that "eventually we will give the rights over fodder and timber to the villagers", the local people are not convinced. Already, cattle and villagers are being turned away from the 81 ha of land on which planting is being undertaken in the first phase. Of this area, 30 ha is under bajra cultivation. The families in the village, which has a population of approximately 2,500, own 5 heads of cattle each on an average. "Cattle form the major part of our livelihood," says Roop Chand. Pointing to the buffaloes tied in the yard of almost every house, he asks, "This is mid-afternoon and they should be out grazing, but where do we send them?" The farmers who have been growing crops on the land are equally agitated, as fields were dug up to plant trees. According to Tekchand Sharma, Congress mla from the neighbouring Saket constituency, who had been approached by a group of disgruntled farmers from Jaunapur, "Land pattas (deeds) had been given to the landless and Harijan villagers in 1974, but these people had not renewed their pattas as they were illiterate. Their names are, therefore, not there in the revenue records and the land is technically with the gaon sabha. But the land should not be taken over without giving them a hearing."

Verma counters that the people have no legitimate right over the land and that "the government cannot leave the land at the mercy of encroachers just because of some opposition". But he adds that they "are sympathetic to the people's problems and will allow them to harvest this season's crop".

A section of the local people are, nevertheless, determined not to allow the trees to thrive. Says Roop Chand, "The area has not been fenced yet. Although the 4 horticulture department workers carrying out the plantation exercise can summon the police if they sense trouble, nobody can really prevent the damage caused by children and cattle."

NGO representatives point out that the government should have prepared the ground for the project by taking the villagers into confidence well before its implementation. Villagers' consent to afforestation on gaon sabha land should be gained by meeting village elders, citizens' groups and local NGOs, says Ashish Kothari of the Delhi-based NGO Kalpavriksh. Programmes that intensify the feeling of oppression among people "only give environmental schemes a bad name", he says.

"By raising plantations on these lands, the government is undoubtedly saving it from encroachers. But there can be no justification for forcibly implementing a project that erodes the long-held authority of the people over natural resources, in the name of environment. Unless the people are convinced that a project is for their benefit, it will not succeed," says Iqbal Malik, convenor of the Joint NGO Forum, a coalition of 18 Delhi-based voluntary organisations that has launched its own drive to green the degraded Delhi Ridge. Malik says that his organisation's tree planting drive was preceded by talks with students, CRPF jawans, women and others who volunteered. "We explained the importance of preserving biodiversity and the significance of planting trees such as babool, dhak and siras that are either indigenous or water-thrifty species. Many volunteers have undertaken to regularly visiting plantation sites to monitor their growth," he says.

Khanduri calls this "idealistic talk" as such measures will not stop encroachers "who would make a lot of money by disposing off the land to property developers". He points out that Jaunapur land, sandwiched between several acres of Delhi's farmhouses, is highly prized. "There are many instances of common land being disposed off to land sharks," he adds. The revenue department, however, refutes this statement.

NGOs also allege that much of the government's greening targets are highly inflated. "If the government's plantation targets are met, there would be a forest here, not a city," says Kothari skeptically. "We suspect crores of rupees are going down the drain with no proper monitoring of the saplings planted. No more than an estimated 10 per cent survive."

The forest department, however, says that the survival rate is about 60 per cent. It points out that the Delhi Assembly recently passed a bill making tree felling even on private land a cognisable offence and permission for tree cutting must now be taken from a newly-formed tree authority. Verma adds that a new monitoring committee is being established, comprising officers from each government department involved in the tree plantation programme. Tree censuses are to be conducted regularly, based on which the committee will submit quarterly reports on the plantation exercise.

Kothari, however, says that while passing legislation is easy, it must be preceded by measures that ensure that enforcement is not in conflict with the prevailing social structure. "What alternative arrangement has been made for slumdwellers who need wood for fuel?" he asks. "Moreover, the monitoring committee to oversee the greening programme comprises only of government officials. NGOs and the government need to collaborate to build a rapport with the local people."