Over the last 10 days, the felling of thousands of trees in Delhi has sparked citizen action. Many have asked who came up with this plan that puts the entire city at risk of greater pollution.

Even as political parties exchange volleys over who approved the felling of trees – a question complicated by Delhi’s multiple and intersecting layers of governance – it is important to place before the public certain facts present in official records that may clarify the matter.

The project

In July 2016, the Union Cabinet approved the redevelopment of seven residential colonies to expand government housing facilities and create commercial infrastructure in the national Capital. The project involves a change in the land use and the felling of over 14,000 fully grown trees. Of the seven colonies, Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar are to be developed by the National Buildings Construction Corporation and Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Mohammadpur and Srinivaspuri by the Central Public Works Department.

The estimated cost of the project, to be completed over five years, is Rs 32,835 crores. The memorandum of understanding signed by the Ministry of Urban Development and the National Buildings Construction Corporation in October 2016 states:

“The total cost of the project shall be met from free hold sale of commercial BUA [built-up area] in Nauroji Nagar (25 acres with BUA of 2,97,000 sq m), parts of Sarojini Nagar (42 acres with BUA of 5,09,900 sq m), and surplus Shops built as a part of Social Infrastructures.”

“If the amount realized from sale is not enough to meet the cost of Construction, maintenance costs for 30 years and NBCC’s investment with interest, then up to 10% of residential BUA is to be sold by NBCC on free hold basis for further revenue generation.”

A “World Trade Centre” with 12 commercial towers is already under construction in Nauroji Nagar. A large number of old trees including neem, bargad, jamun, fig and others have already been cut in Netaji Nagar and are beginning to be felled in Sarojini Nagar.

Such large real estate development projects require a range of environmental permissions after their impacts are assessed and before any construction can start. In this case, it is an environmental approval from the central environment ministry, permission for felling of trees by Delhi’s forest department, pollution-related approvals from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and guarantee of water supply from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.

At least 13,128 of the 19,978 trees marked for destruction are in Sarojini Nagar. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Tree felling permissions

The project documents stated there were 19,978 trees standing on the seven sites, with the maximum in Sarojini Nagar – 13,128. Of these, 16,573 trees were proposed to be cut down, with the rest to stay on site or to be “relocated”. However, the felling of trees in the city is subject to the approval of the Delhi forest department.

On November 11, 2017, the state environment and forests secretary, on the direction of the lieutenant governor of Delhi, the head of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, granted the approval for tree felling in Nauroji Nagar. Similar approval was given to the Netaji Nagar project on April 23, 2018.

The powers of the lieutenant governor are drawn from the Transaction of Business of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Rules, 1993, which have been at the centre of the tussle between the Aam Aadmi Party, which is in power in Delhi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre.

This implies that the approvals for tree felling may be a “shared responsibility” between the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, headed by the lieutenant governor, and the administration run by the Aam Aadmi Party.

In fact, a set of file notings on the Netaji Nagar tree felling by Delhi’s Environment Minister Imran Hussain state: “The number of trees proposed to be cut is too large. Project Proponent may be requested to submit revised project report.” However, these file notings are of April 25, 2018, by which time the secretary, environment and forests, had already signed off on the felling of trees in the Netaji Nagar.

Exemption for this project?

Tree felling in Delhi requires permission from a Tree Officer appointed under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994. This officer is authorised to assess a project before granting or declining approvals for tree felling.

But the two tree felling permissions for Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar have been granted citing Section 29 of the 1994 Act, which allows the “Government” of the National Capital Territory of Delhi to exempt “any area or any species of trees from all or any of the provisions of this Act… in public interest”.

This means that the tree felling permissions have been awarded by bypassing the detailed enquiry of the Tree Officer and taking away his power to decline approvals.

How many trees to be cut?

According to the project documents, 16,573 trees were to be cut down on the seven sites.

While giving permissions, the secretary, environment and forests, reduced the number of trees to be felled in Nauroji Nagar by 11 from 1,465 trees to 1,454 trees. In Netaji Nagar, instead of 3,033 trees, permission was given for felling only 2,490 trees.

But, altogether, even the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has clarified that “14,031 trees are to be cut” for the seven sites.

Is the felling done legal?

A series of orders by the National Green Tribunal clearly mandates that trees can be cut for the project only after ten times the same number has been planted – a process called compensatory planting.

In October 2016, former Union minister Raghunath Jha filed a petition in the tribunal, challenging the redevelopment of the seven housing colonies on the premise that the project would involve the loss of 1.86 lakh trees. In two orders passed on September 4, 2017 and September 22, 2017, the tribunal laid down three requirements:

  • The consent to the project from the concerned authority “shall necessarily include the condition that if any tree is fell or permitted to cut, in place thereof at least, 10 trees shall be planted”.  
  • The plantation needs to be explored in the “same area” as the project and only if that is not feasible, at a site designated by the DDA.
  • The plants should be planted as “a condition precedent to the cutting of trees.”  
Old government staff quarters and trees are currently being felled in Netaji Nagar. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

In Nauroji Nagar, the tree felling is completed, and in Netaji Nagar, it is underway. But government departments are yet to clarify if the replanting of trees in the same area was even assessed, and whether 10 times the number of trees marked for felling were planted before the axe fell.

Worse, in the case of Sarojini Nagar, where felling has begun, no permission has been granted so far. Siddhanta Das, the director general of forests, said in a discussion on Rajya Sabha TV that the proposal for felling 11,000 trees has been “returned to the user agency” and “that they may give a better proposal because, this cannot be accepted right away”.

Approvals may be revoked

Four of the seven colonies also required environment clearances from the central environment ministry as they were spread over 3,00,000 sq metres.

Both Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar received environment clearances under the Environment Impact Assessment notification of 2006 on November 27, 2017. The clearance for Thyagraj Nagar redevelopment came on May 30, 2018 and for Sarojini Nagar on June 12, 2018.

The environmental clearances came without public consultations since real estate projects enjoy a “special” appraisal process under the Environment Impact Assessment notification, and are exempt from public consultation.

But the environmental clearances come with a range of conditions, including restriction on groundwater use and the mandatory submission of a certified report on water bodies.

A clear condition in the environmental clearance letters of these projects is that the orders passed by the National Green Tribunal in September should be complied with. This makes tree felling without compensatory plantations a violation of the conditions of the environment clearance.

The environment ministry has the power to take note of such non-compliance and take action, including revoke the project’s approval.

Tangled environmental governance

In light of the facts that have emerged in the public domain, and the exchanges that have taken place on social media between ministers and citizens, it is clear the project requires a full review.

A detailed judicial examination may throw further light on the tree felling approvals in the context of Delhi’s “special” governance.

But when the project itself is riddled with other environmental concerns related to pollution and the use of resources in Delhi, can the environment ministry itself not take a bold step and seek a reassessment of this project?

Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are environmental researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.