By Smriti Singh
I was late for my first protest gathering. The WhatsApp and Facebook messages had been sent only a few hours ago, and it was a surprise to find more than 30 people already there at the protest site. Students, residents, children and citizens from all corners of Delhi braved the heat and gathered beneath the ‘Redevelopment of Sarojini Nagar’ signboard opposite Netaji Nagar, which used to be my home until only a year ago.
It didn’t take me long to get used to the setting. Someone handed me a poster. I had my picture taken by a lot of photographers, the sudden flash acting as the only source of light on the otherwise dark sidewalk. I realised how well a spontaneous protest works to attract everyone who has a DSLR in the five-kilometre radius. In the midst of this, there was also media which came in huge numbers and swiftly arranged everyone in a single file so they could take a panoramic picture and then probably rush off to the next event.
I could almost see M-block, Netaji Nagar from where I was standing. I had lived there for six years and to be back like this staring at those huge metal frames that hid the demolished colony, felt nothing short of bizarre. A lady grabbed my arm, as she asked, “Do you know where the floodplains near Garhi Mandu are? Too Far! They’re planning to plant 10 saplings for each tree they chop, but who knows if it’ll ever be implemented..” She didn’t let me finish. I don’t think she was looking for an answer and she moved on to the next person and started talking to him about transplantation.
I was sure I had misheard her but it turned out that the government was planning to transplant 175 trees from Netaji Nagar. An extremely difficult procedure which required heavy machinery and approximately ₹2-3 lakh per tree. Trees would be uprooted ensuring that maximum roots are still intact, it hasn’t lost any moisture and is planted at the same depth as soon as possible. Even if all the steps are followed, the success rate is extremely low. Rather than undertaking this risky step, wouldn’t they rather just chop the tree and leave? As they had done till now.
A friend of mine who lives in Sarojini Nagar told me how she witnessed a sharp change in the air quality in her colony ever since the metro construction work started, much before the redevelopment project was announced. It makes one wonder, can the loss of 16,500 trees be compensated with these saplings planted tens of kilometres away? Delhi needs afforestation, but not at the stake of losing 16,500 trees. Scientists have estimated that if you consider all the economic, environmental and aesthetic services a single tree provides, it is ₹24 lakh per year. We don’t talk about it more often because it provides us with so much for free and we mostly tend to appreciate something if it is monetised.
We’re already losing the battle for clean air. More and more people are investing in air purifiers and pollution masks but how long will someone avoid going outside and how much will s/he spend at the doctors before we realise that these are not even temporary solutions. A stay order has been issued till July 4, but we’re nowhere close to the end of this battle for clean air. I remember my mother was fascinated with the idea of living in a place where the trees were taller than the house. The greenery was the main attraction for my family to move there in 2012. The Jamun, Champa, Neem, Molassery, Sahtoot, Kachnar, Pilkhan and Mango trees, their natural nectar and scents gave the colony a characteristic scent that greeted us when we drove through the red creaking front gate. The gate and the remaining trees that stood next to the ruined housed were now hidden by a ‘Redevelopment of Netaji Nagar’ frame.
My first summer there, I had to make a science project and what better topic than Trees of Delhi. I walked around M-Block like I had the last few weeks but this time, I looked up at the tall trees. Some of them touched houses and bent into terraces. I pressed the leaves in between thick books to dry them and stuck them on coloured paper. My project was complete. That was the moment I realised how lucky I was. The colony was my little haven away from the otherwise rushed streets of Delhi. Every monsoon we could peep out of the window and see a peacock who mistook the foliage for a forest it hadn’t seen in ages. We never heard the traffic from Africa Avenue but we heard birds chirping every day. Monkeys would jump from tree to tree and I was sure it did so to mock the dogs on the street. Every day while coming back from school I would fall asleep in the car and I would know I was home if I saw green through the car window. The trees would guide me home.
It was in 2016 that the rumours about the colony’s planned demolition started making rounds. They said it was for a metro station, multi-storeyed apartments or a shopping complex. Nobody knew for sure. It was only when I saw the ‘Redevelopment of Netaji Nagar’ board that I realised they weren’t rumours but the truth which was about to hit us. The hundreds of people working for the officers were the most affected. They had been living in this colony for twenty years, much longer than any of their ‘sahebs’ Some women had got their daughters married in this colony, and for them in every sense, this was their only permanent home. The residents received the inevitable eviction notice in 2017.
There were colony meetings and letters written to superiors but it was a government colony so within a few months of the notice, Netaji Nagar was deserted. I saw it sometimes while going to school. But I couldn’t bear to see the demolished houses anymore, and thus we changed our route. This was no longer my colony. With Board exams and results, I didn’t think a lot about Netaji Nagar, that is until last week. This time, I was not a school student who only vaguely understood why her family had to move out. As an intern with Chintan, I had a different perspective.
Joining the protests made me feel like I was doing something, however small for my city. I joined the WhatsApp group and every day my phone blows up with 300+ messages from the Delhi Trees group where hundreds volunteer their time and give ideas. People brainstorm to make their creative protest appealing, a musical evening, stand-up show, art, an interactive walk through the colony. I don’t participate because I think I’m still in awe and disbelief that so many people care. The protests happen every evening opposite my old house until one day when the boards and frames come down, and I can see M-2786 again. Delhi wasn’t always the most polluted city in the world, but right now, it cannot afford to lose 16,500 trees, or even one tree given the situation. Future generations deserve to live in a city where they do not have to check pollution levels every time they step out.
The author is currently interning at Chintan.