As pollution levels in the National Capital Region went skyward in early June due to dust storms from Thar choking the region, one major cause was identified as the deforestation in the Aravalli Range. Yet, due to effective government intervention and help from the European Union, these same areas had shown a rise in forest cover from 1990 to 1997, according to documented research. A lot of reversal has happened since 2000, and our governments appear unable to gauge that Delhi is asphyxiating. It is increasingly becoming apparent that citizens’ pressure groups have to step in.

Kush Sethi, 27, is doing exactly that, albeit in a gentle, persuasive fashion. He has designed special walks in patches of wilderness in the NCR, where he leads groups of 15-20 people thrice a month in the hope of raising awareness about ecology, pollution, native species, water tables and heat islands. Some of his most popular offers are the foraging and scavenging walk and the moonlight walk through Sanjay Van, which is Delhi’s most accessible forest, stretching from Qutub Minar to Jawaharlal Nehru University.

South Delhi’s lung, it is home to neelgai, jackals and multiple bird species. Today it has shrunk to 1,500 acres of green wilderness and is under constant onslaught from expanding religious structures, destructive human traffic, land encroachment by nearby villages, as well as invasive plant species that were introduced by the British.

In this interview Sethi talks about the nature walks and what he hopes to accomplish with them.

You work primarily in landscape design and urban ecology. Can you describe your background and tell us if there was any specific impetus that pointed you in this direction?
Between 2005 and 2008, international news on climate change and global warming was picking up and the Indian media had started to cover it widely. Al Gore’s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth had just been released and around the same time, I was gifted a Japanese manga novel called Barefoot Gen, which was a powerful story of the author who lost his family to the nuclear warfare in Hiroshima.

I was in the final years of school at Don Bosco in New Delhi at the time and all of these [developments] were starting to make me very interested in environmental protection as a subject. The syllabus in school lagged seriousness and depth when it came to ecology, so I started to delve into with environmental documentaries, graphic novels and any other pedagogic formats than seemed relevant.

Kush Sethi. Photo credit: Ronak Singh Bhasin

I liked chemistry as a subject and realised that as a pure science, it could equip me to understand the natural world better. I enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Delhi University and then went on to earn a Master’s in green chemistry at University of York. This acted as a bridge back towards the environment.

Once back in Delhi, I tried finding tangible field work in urban ecology and sustainability. The first job was with a research-based project on the Delhi Ridge – it combined areas of my interest like activism, botany, conservation, policy and, most importantly, walking. I started walking and learning about various outlooks of understanding natural spaces from birding enthusiasts, students pursuing PhDs, field naturalists and local ecology experts. There were constant debates between experts on perspectives of looking at these spaces; on native versus foreign species; on wild versus manicured styles of growing. All of this would eventually also affect government policy, forest rights and land diversion for development.

I realised that to form any informed opinions and understanding I would need to learn how to grow plants myself. I think that’s how my interest and career in landscape design must have started.

Photo credit: What’s happening in Sanjay Van/Facebook

You are becoming well known for your walks that get those living in concrete jungles in touch with real jungles, albeit these might be patches of wilderness surviving in an urban landscape…
Walking started as a necessary tool to gather findings from the forest. My then-colleague Aastha Chauhan (on the Delhi Ridge research) and I gradually began to see the potential of this tool as an art practice – to learn, explore and mobilise.

She started a Facebook page called ‘What’s happening in Sanjay Van?’ to talk about one of the most accessible forests of the Delhi Ridge. We shared our observations, news, events and everyday stories of the forest users. This page continues to be active today. The idea was to celebrate the forest, invite new visitors, build an informed narrative and share our opinion on the present forest management practices.

We were already walking in the day as part of our work, and we started taking one or two people along – often [these were] academics and artists who helped us see the forest in a new light each time. But exploring at night was something still unknown.

We invited six friends on our first walk, mostly to feel safe as a group and the feedback was good. Post this, we started to announce it on the Facebook page and the group size started growing from seven to 16 on each full moon night.

A moonlight walk Sanjay Van - Credits AMemoir (1)

The moonlight walk sound enticing in the heat of Delhi’s summer, but is conducted in complete silence and by the light of the moon. I get the idea of returning to nature without any artifice, but can you share the reaction of some who have walked with you?
Walking in Delhi’s summer is hard, thus I came up with the idea of moonlight walks. The routes were charted by me keeping the safety of walkers as paramount. Since the walk is conducted by the light of the full moon, it helps people get in touch with nature without the mediation of technology of any kind. Even simple torches are not permitted. Chance encounters with hares, jackals, neelgais and fireflies and the silence and moonlight streaming through the canopy of trees all make it an experience that people want to relive, although every time you walk you discover something new and fresh.

The foraging walk must be an education to those who only buy packaged vegetables from supermarkets...
The idea of the foraging is also rooted in walking in the Delhi Ridge, then in neighbourhoods, and gradually learning to identify plant species. Some species like Casor, Aak and Dhatura would always pop up in ignored spaces around railway lines, around construction sites and larger less maintained highways.

I found that several plants had medicinal values, some were edible and many were being appreciated by bees, butterflies and, sometimes, birds. These plants didn’t need us to grow them. They were worth celebrating.

A foraging walk. Photo credit: Kush Sethi

In the foraging walks we go looking for a plant-based ingredient list and Lodhi Gardens is one of our favourite sites. We collect edible flowers like nasturtium, begonia, dianthus, marigolds, etc. – all of which are grown purely for ornamentation. These give us sweet flavours and colours for the meal. Some of our findings include wilder greens like nooniya, amaranth, chenopodiums, wood sorrel, purslane, mallows and chickweed which end up becoming the body of the meals aka saag for most locals. We also explore the garden’s herb beds and plantations which are designed to be interacted with.

After collection, all of the ingredients go into a multi-course meal with a welcome drink and a dessert. So far we’ve been lucky to have found chefs who enjoyed experimental cooking and playing with new ingredients.

The food foraged during a walk. Photo credit: Kush Sethi

You also conduct walks of shorter duration around the neighbourhood. How do you talk to people about the issues that concern you?
The narrative of each walk is different but they all have some undertones of urban environmental activism. Like the Vilayiti Keekar [a variety of tree brought to Delhi by the British that is killing native tree species] is an unavoidable topic in any walk and I mention the plant’s history in India with the damaging effects it has caused to the local ecosystems. I like to share opinions referencing it to the experts, books I learnt them from. I don’t hide counter-arguments even if I disagree. Primarily, because participants need to think critically and not take our statements as the final word.

But yes, spotting the native species out of the rest, appreciating the aesthetic values of the local ones and pinpointing which plants work better in Delhi’s heat and water scarcity, enables me to get participants to start thinking in a format. It’s a sly way to pass forward my ecological motives.

We speak greatly about our relationship with plants and how it’s mostly one sided. For example, trees are important to people because they give shade, their flowers are de-stressing and one can consume the fruit. I think firstly we need to stop putting ourselves at the centre to start appreciating urban nature better. Our short scavenging walks where we utilise discarded junk, much like our foraging walks, are designed to bring about an awareness of how easy it is to shrink carbon footprints by going local and by reducing trash.

Seasoned naturalists who walk with us help create awareness about ecology and successive governments’ botched efforts at conservation of forests. If forests within our city can be so disrespected, what about those where there are fewer witnesses to the destruction?