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As The Most Polluted City In The World, Delhi Cannot Afford To Lose 16,500 Trees

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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.

Picture Credit: Delhi Trees SOS group

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.

Picture Credit: Delhi Trees SOS group
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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