For most urban planners and builders today, a city is ideally like a neat Lego park. It has clusters of self-contained gated communities that are populated by the middle and upper middle classes, and are served by shopping complexes, car parks and parks. This is the new aesthetic for urban India – landscaped, shiny and populated with tame trees that will not grow too big or too wild. This is also no fantasy, as the furore over the redevelopment of seven old government housing colonies in New Delhi showed. For the construction project, 16,500 trees – the majority of them fully-grown, some decades old – were marked to be hacked down.

The public uproar in June and the court intervention that followed emphasised the range and depth of exclusion the residents of urban India experience as authorities in government offices plan the future of their cities. The inclusion of the desires of citizens in any such plans has been an undercurrent of the ongoing Satyagraha against the felling of trees in the national Capital. Through this protest, several residents of Delhi have staked their claim over their city in the last two months.

This struggle has also provided an opportunity for urban India to understand how the new aesthetic for urban spaces fundamentally excludes the majority of a city’s residents.

No space for street vendors

For instance, where do street vendors fit in a city where everyone lives behind gates? There are 10 million street vendors in India. They feed those on the move and sell them inexpensive toys and clothes. When these vendors go out to earn their living, they must either travel to areas where their clients live or work, or stay in one place so their clients know where to find them. In both cases, they seek shade from the vagaries of weather. Similarly, cobblers – people who, in new parlance, are greening the lives of people by extending the life of the stuff people use – also need shade to set up their daily workspace.

There are waste pickers too who depend on the shade of trees while working. In August, they wrote a poignant letter to various officials in Delhi, including the Lieutenant Governor, about why they believed trees were essential to their work. They spoke of how they sit by the side of the road, in the shade of a tree, when they get exhausted, eat their lunch under a tree, and breathe air that is less polluted, thanks to trees and other greenery. Even domestic workers often walk a fair distance to catch the bus or train home. They too, pause under the canopy of trees to catch their breath. Cyclists speak of how trees are their protection when it rains heavily.

In the summer, in some of Delhi’s residential colonies that are not gated yet, street vendors and waste collectors can be seen resting in parks till the harsh afternoon sun ebbs. Their homes are too far away for them to go for an afternoon siesta and return. They need to work the afternoon shift to earn enough for the month.

In Delhi's Netaji Nagar, a large number of trees have been felled to make space for buildings. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).

Barbers tend to set up their chairs under trees too, their mirrors nailed onto one. While interviewing several informal workers for a project some years ago, I was struck by how many spoke of trees and parks as objects of beauty, essential joy-givers in their difficult urban lives. For some, trees were even companions, who stayed with them year after year. For all these populations, large, shade-giving trees in public spaces are key to their livelihoods, their health and their understanding of the city they navigate. All these informal sector workers comprise the majority population of a city.

It is not just informal workers. The poor need trees too, and the government must recognise this fact. The state and Union governments have floated several welfare schemes directed at the sizeable number of people in urban India who are poor. But though subsidised foodgrains, access to affordable healthcare, better housing and toilets are important, they are still not enough in themselves to enable the marginalised to earn a decent livelihood or increase their quality of their lives. That welfare schemes related to food, housing and sanitation exist for the poor is indicative of the State’s willingness to usher in some basic equity. Planners and governments must stay within this equity mandate even in the case of trees. They must know that the cities of their drawing boards are not the cities people on the ground want to live in. Every time they plan a project that demands trees to be cut, they are only exacerbating inequity and making the city hostile for its most marginal citizens.

Bharati Chaturvedi is the director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, Delhi.