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Dossier People’s Struggles in India

Save the Ridge: the Fight to Preserve Delhi’s Urban Forest

, by Intercultural Resources , CROWLEY Thomas

Introduction

The Delhi Ridge is often referred to as the green lung of India’s capital city. A series of low hills extending in two branches to cradle the city, the Ridge also contains the city’s densest forest cover. It serves many valuable ecological functions, protecting Delhi from the dust of nearby Rajasthan, lowering the ambient temperature, cleaning the air, sheltering flora and fauna, and – perhaps most importantly – filtering and preserving groundwater in a parched city. An ever-growing capital city (the 2011 census puts the population at 16.6 million), Delhi faces significant pressure on its green spaces. In the 1980s and 1990s, various citizens’ groups, NGOs and activists banded together to save the Ridge’s forests from encroachment and widespread destruction. This movement won significant victories, but the Ridge has now receded from the public consciousness. This article is an attempt to re-examine a movement that has largely faded into the background, despite the continued importance of preserving the Ridge. After briefly reviewing the long history of the Ridge, the article will analyze the “Save the Ridge” movement, its triumphs and its current marginalization in the public conversation about Delhi.

Historical Overview

The Delhi Ridge is the tail end of the Aravalli mountain range, which arose over a billion years ago. The Himalayas, by contrast, are quite young (about 50 million years old). The Aravallis have been worn down by time, and now, at their grandest, reach a height of only 1700 meters. In Delhi, the Ridge is comprised of several hilly spurs. The Ridge has played an important role in Delhi’s history, and even its prehistory. The rocky outcrops of the Ridge contain high-quality quartzite, which Stone Age tribes used to make tools. In fact, archeologists have discovered Stone Age factories along the Delhi ridge, evidence of the widespread production of tools. Stone Age tribes were also drawn to the dense forest cover of the ridge, which provided food (both plant and animal) and shelter. Further, there was plentiful water, a point still relevant today.

The Ridge has been critical in more recent Delhi history as well. According to traditional accounts, Delhi has seen seven cities rise and fall (the seventh being the Mughal city of Shajahanabad, now known as “Old Delhi,” which fell to the British). The first four of these cities – during medieval times – chose to locate themselves directly on the Ridge, partly for ecological reasons and partly because of the military vantage point afforded by the hills. However, by the late Mughal period, the city had shifted towards the banks of the Yamuna River and the Ridge had been largely deforested, even though it still served an important role as a groundwater source and a grazing site for local pastoralists.

The Ridge became especially significant in British times, for a variety of reasons. First was the watershed year of 1857, which witnessed a widespread uprising against British rule (known in India as the First War of Independence and in Britain as simply the Mutiny). Although the uprising occurred across northern India, fighting was especially intense in Delhi, as the rebels rallied around the Mughal “emperor” (who had been reduced to the ceremonial role of “King of Delhi” under close British watch). The British troops stationed themselves on the northern portion of the Delhi Ridge (again, seeking the military advantage of its height), and after the rebellion – which the British brutally crushed – the Ridge took on the status of sacred monument.

When the British shifted their imperial capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi – a decision announced in 1911 – the Ridge again became a focus of attention. The British wanted their new capital to show the majestic grandeur and order of the empire, especially given India’s status as the “jewel in the crown” of British power. Much of the planning of the new city revolved around designs for impressive buildings, and wide, well-ordered roads; these are the elements of New Delhi that still get attention today. However, the Ridge also played an important, if underappreciated, role. The British envisioned the Ridge as an appropriately majestic backdrop to the new city. They undertook an ambitious reforestation program on the section of the Ridge near New Delhi. Since they were largely focused on aesthetic concerns, rather than ecological ones, they introduced many exotic species that they thought would provide suitable ornamentation. Unsurprisingly, most of these foreign species did not survive Delhi’s harsh, dry climate, with one notable exception: the Prosopis juliflora, a Mexican mesquite tree now known in India as vilayati (foreign) kikar. The vilayati kikar thrived in Delhi, and indeed established extensive monocultures in the Ridge. While this greatly increased Delhi’s green cover, it was not an entirely positive development. The mesquite is successful because it crowds out its competition, sending down long roots to suck up precious groundwater and drying up surface soiling. It thus pushes down water tables and does not allow other plants to grow.

The British afforestation of the Delhi Ridge also shows the exclusivity and colonial nature of British forestry. People living in villages near the Ridge were displaced, and locals who depended on the Ridge for fuel and fodder were kept out by fences and guards. In 1913, the Central Ridge (near New Delhi) was named a Reserved Forest, thus placing it under more stringent British control. The British employed a model of imperial forestry that still has some echoes in modern environmental policy.

The “Save the Ridge” Campaign

The contemporary movement to preserve the Ridge as forest land began in 1979, with the founding of the student group Kalpavriksh (named after the wish-granting tree of Sanskrit myth, now associated with the Banyan tree). These students protested the felling of trees in the Ridge to make way for various developments. In 1980, the Lieutenant Governor (administrative head) of Delhi declared portions of the Ridge as protected forests. Throughout the 1980s, groups like Kalpavriksh fought for increased protection of the Ridge. But the movement only came to a head in 1992, when large portions of the Ridge were transferred to the oversight of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). The DDA is the governmental organization in charge of implementing Delhi’s Master Plan for urban development and regulation. Even though portions of the Ridge were protected, their transfer to the DDA raised fears that the agency would want to “develop” the land – with residential flats, shopping complexes, government buildings and so on. Further, the DDA’s vision of a “green Delhi” was far different from that of Ridge activists. The DDA envisioned meticulously manicured parks, free of undergrowth and largely free of tree cover, to be filled with jogging tracks and benches. Indeed, they had already built such parks in several areas of the Ridge, drastically reducing the variety and density of flora and fauna in these areas. Ridge advocates, on the other hand, maintained a vision of a relatively wild forest, which would retain its ecological role as an air purifier, cooler and wildlife habitat.

In 1992, Kalpavriksh joined with several other organizations to form the Joint NGO Forum to Save the Ridge, which included major groups like the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). The Forum helped mobilize school and neighborhood organizations, and publicized the cause in various media outlets. There was a strong response from citizens who valued the Ridge, and several marches and protests were held. In April 1993, responding to the public pressure, the government appointed a 10-person committee to develop recommendations for managing the Ridge. The committee advised that the four major sections of the Delhi Ridge all be notified as Reserved Forests, the highest level of protection the government can provide. It also recommended that a special board be constituted to oversee the management of the Ridge. Both of these recommendations were accepted by the government, and, in 1994, about 78 square kilometers of the Ridge were notified as Reserved Forest. This was a major victory for the “Save the Ridge” movement, and indeed marked the high point of the Ridge campaign.

The Aftermath of the 1994 Notification

1994, however, was not the end of Ridge activism. Soon flaws were found in the demarcations of the four Reserved Forests. Due to incomplete maps provided by the DDA (on purpose, many assert), large areas of the Ridge were not included in the protected forest areas. One such area left off the map was a piece of the Ridge sandwiched between the upscale residential areas of Vasant Kunj and Vasant Vihar. A citizens’ organization seeking to preserve the Vasant Kunj Ridge calls the 1994 notification “a partition by devious planners and developers.” Certainly the DDA was eager to “develop” this area. It first proposed building a complex of thirteen five-star hotels in the area. After an outcry from Ridge defenders, followed by a lawsuit, the project was dropped, although one hotel still managed to get constructed. Then, the DDA began promoting a high-end mall complex. Activists again protested, and again took the case to courts, but, in the end, they were unsuccessful. The Vasant Kunj mall complex now stands as a testament to priorities of the DDA: luxury consumerism over ecological sensitivity. The Delhi government has since built a “Biodiversity Park” on the remaining area of the Vasant Kunj Ridge, but this does not enjoy the same level of protection as Reserved Forests, and it seems more like a cosmetic fix.

While the Vasant Kunj Ridge provides a clear case of environmental activists seeking to protect a threatened ecosystem from rapacious developers, conflicts in other parts of the Ridge proved to be more ambiguous, with the environmentalists less clearly the “good guys.” The 1994 notification was used by the government as justification for removing poor, “unsightly” encroachments while letting wealthy encroachments remain. This is in keeping with the British view of the Ridge as an elite aesthetic backdrop, to be used for the benefit of the haves, to the exclusion of the have-nots. So while luxurious “farmhouses” remained on the Ridge, protected by their wealthy, well-connected owners, shanty-towns and slums were destroyed.

A particularly controversial case was that of the Bhatti Mines in the southern part of the Ridge. The mines themselves had long been shut down, after evidence emerged of widespread labor abuse. The area had ostensibly been converted into a wildlife sanctuary, but government afforestation efforts did little to change the barren landscape, and the erstwhile miners still remained in settlements in the area. Of particular note was the Od community, part of a traditionally nomadic tribe that had settled in the Delhi area after Indian Independence in 1947. The Ods are traditional diggers and earth masons, and they have significant knowledge about building ponds, canals and other water bodies. Despite this wealth of traditional knowledge, their villages in the Bhatti Mines area were declared mere slums after 1994 in order to expedite their destruction. The villagers protested this move, but to no effect. Most of the villages in the Bhatti Mines area were razed; one remained due to its fierce protests, as well as its political connections.

The Bhatti Mines case reveals that the Ridge movement was not immune to aesthetic and social concerns that echoed British elitism; perhaps this is why the movement has not retained a broad based of support. However, it should be stressed that many Ridge advocates were appalled at the action of the government. Groups like Kalpavriksh have long recognized the importance of the Ridge as a source of fuel and fodder for poor communities, and activists like Ravi Agarwal (a key member of the Save the Ridge campaign) have advocated on behalf of the Od.

For the moment, there are no major conflicts occurring on Ridge land, and – as a result – the spirit of Ridge activism has largely died down. However, as Delhi continues to expand, pressures on the Ridge will increase. The challenge for Ridge activists is to stress the genuine ecological importance of the Ridge without resorting to the authoritarian, exclusionary measures championed by the Delhi government.

This article is availaible in French: La lutte de « Save the Ridge » pour la préservation de la forêt urbaine de Delhi

Further readings:

Watch:

  • “On the Brink”, Video produced by the Citizens for the Preservation of the Quarries and Lakes Wilderness (CPQLW).

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