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Editorial: How green was my valley

Ironically, such disregard for the law of the land is transpiring at a time when the national capital, and many regions in the north are beset by simultaneous heat waves, that have claimed several lives

Editorial: How green was my valley

Delhi high court (ANI)

Last month, the Delhi High Court issued contempt notices to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Forest Department over the felling of over 1,000 trees to construct an approach road near the South Asian University. The court noted that 400 trees were cut on DDA land, and 700 on Forest Department land. A petitioner had claimed that local authorities failed to act against the illegal construction of the road owing to the involvement of land mafia and senior officers of Delhi government in the project. The Delhi Ridge is a rocky outcrop of the Aravalli ranges, stretching from Delhi University in the north, to the south and beyond.

Ironically, such disregard for the law of the land is transpiring at a time when the national capital, and many regions in the north are beset by simultaneous heat waves, that have claimed several lives. In the backdrop of World Environment Day, which was observed this week, Saima Wazed, the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia remarked that ‘our region records the highest number of deaths from climate change annually amongst all WHO regions’, adding that climate change and loss of biodiversity are already posing significant threats to health, regional economy and livelihoods.

This year, the focus of the observance is on land restoration, halting desertification, and building drought resilience. Undoubtedly, it’s a pertinent concern, if you go by the reports released over the past few months. An environmental journal had recently published an analysis which said between 2018 and 2022, over 50 lakh large farmland trees vanished in India, partly due to altered cultivation practices. Researchers said an observable trend was emerging wherein agroforestry systems were being replaced with paddy rice fields.

The study highlighted how large and mature trees within these agroforestry fields were removed, and trees were now being cultivated within separate block plantations, typically with lower ecological value. The logic was driven by perceived low benefits of the trees, coupled with concerns that their shading effect, including that of Neem trees, may adversely affect crop yields. This is just one side of the story. We must also call out the hackneyed response of the government when it comes to episodes of mass felling of trees in ecologically sensitive regions.

In response to a RTI query filed by a Noida-based social activist, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) revealed in April that more than 7,500 trees were chopped for a 16-km section of the Delhi-Dehradun Expressway. Of the felled trees on the Ganeshpur-Dehradun section of the project, 4,983 were in Uttarakhand, while 2,592 were in Uttar Pradesh. As part of the remedial compensatory afforestation ordered by the Supreme Court, over 1.76 lakh saplings are to be planted.

The irony of such ‘compensatory measures’ is not lost on a country where over 25% of the land is undergoing desertification. Stakeholders have pointed out that chopping down forest stretches leads to the destruction of whole ecosystems that are home to varied microflora and fauna. Afforestation is a monocultural activity and it cannot hold a candle to the combined faculties of a rich forest habitat.

Experts have called for sustainable land use practices, reforestation, and effective water management to stop desertification. Building resilience against droughts will need water conservation, drought-resistant crops, and improvements in early warning systems. Above all, India must begin enforcing environmental laws and regulations stringently, sans political influence or pressure.

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