It is heartening that citizens of Delhi who are not hitherto known for public-spirited activism have put their foot down against the felling of 17,000 trees in seven South Delhi localities to clear the way for homes for government employees besides a commercial complex.
That, as a consequence, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has ruled that no trees can be cut at least until July 19 for the controversial project is a good beginning but not something on which the Delhiites can sit back smug and celebrate.
The NGT’s direction to the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) and Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is nonetheless a victory, albeit a limited one, which needs to be built upon.
The tribunal was hearing a plea by an NGO which claimed that environmental clearance had been granted for the seven central government residential colonies without taking into account the project's adverse impact on the ecology.
The green panel made it clear that it wanted to be informed about the exact number of trees proposed to be cut for the redevelopment project when it hears the case on July 19.
Earlier, the High Court had directed the agencies which are overseeing the project to inform it if the green tribunal had approved the cutting of trees while it put off the project till July 4, the next hearing.
"We could understand if it was a road-widening work which is inevitable. You want to cut thousands of trees for housing. Can Delhi afford this?" the judge asked the government-run NBCC.
The re-development plan involves areas under Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Srinivaspuri and Mohammadpur.
While Union minister Hardeep Puri assured that for every tree cut four saplings would be planted, environmentalists argued that saplings could not replace fully grown trees for years in Delhi, which is among the most-polluted cities in the world.
The NGO plea said an environmental impact assessment report for the project had shown that 11,000 trees will be cut in Sarojini Nagar, 1,465 in Nauroji Nagar, 3,033 will be chopped off from Netaji Nagar and another 520 will be cut in Kasturba Nagar. The project was slated to develop government office accommodation of nearly 2.42 lakh sqm in Netaji Nagar. The total estimated project cost of Rs 32,835 crore included maintenance and operation costs for 30 years and was projected to be completed in five years in a phased manner.
The Delhi project is reminiscent of a highly controversial Rs 1,800-crore steel flyover in Bengaluru which was vehemently opposed by citizens groups during the Congress regime of Siddaramaiah early last year and had ultimately to be given up when the public outcry reached a crescendo.
That proved to public-spirited groups nationwide how powerful citizen lobbies could be. Allegations of corruption in the deal flew thick and fast leading to the abandonment of the project.
The plan was for a massive steel bridge to ease traffic on the road connecting Bengaluru to its international airport. What disturbed a hornet’s nest was a diary found during tax raids on then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's parliamentary secretary K Govindraju which allegedly mentioned Rs 65 crore against "steel bridge."
The state Opposition led by the BJP said it was a reference to bribes paid for the project.
The 6.7 km steel bridge would have required the chopping of 812 trees and Bengaluru residents had managed to get the National Green Tribunal to stop its construction pending an audit. Critics had also alleged a lack of transparency in the commissioning of the project.
In the Delhi case, the number of trees slated to be cut is a whopping 17,000 and it would be horrendous if the campaign in the capital slackens. The citizens must heighten their tempo of opposition and rest content only when the project is dropped for good. A relentless campaign is the need of the hour.
This is indeed a test case for Delhiites and their tenacity to fight the powers-that-be over an issue that concerns Delhi’s citizens.