In 1912, Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and George Swinton were appointed by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, as the three-man Expert Town Planning Committee entrusted with the task of creating the new capital city in British India – Delhi. Every morning, the trio would set off on elephant-back from the Maidens Hotel in Civil Lines to supervise the laying out of the city. Aiding them in this enormous effort were P Clutterback and WR Mustoe – two horticulturalists, who were responsible for the planting of 10,000 trees and over 100 kilometres of green hedges in the capital.

When Lutyens first surveyed the stunted natural vegetation of the landscape, he did not think that trees with shade-giving canopies – considered suitable for avenues – would survive in the city. It was Clutterback, who suggested planting 13 species of avenue trees indigenous to India. Neem and alstonia, two of the chosen varieties, were meant to purify and perfume the air, while jamun, sausage-tree (Kigella Africana) and tamarind were picked for their fruit-bearing properties as well as to play host to avian residents.

Most of the avenues standing today remain as envisioned by the committee, even though some species such as Sterculia Alata (Buddha’s Coconut) did not flourish, and a few others needed too much water for an arid landscape.

Lutyens told the Viceroy he was planting for a survival span of 300 years, and in the words of Swinton, Delhi was to resemble a “sea of foliage”. They could have scarcely imagined, though, what the future held in store – ordinary citizens resorting to their own Chipko movement in 2018 to save 14,000 trees from being felled in a city that is slowly asphyxiating.

Neem trees on Lodhi Road. Photo credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.

Glorious, green past

Books such as Celebrating Delhi by Mala Dayal and Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi by Robert Irving detail how the saplings were planted in Swinton’s time. A generous pit was dug to a depth of six feet, and once the soil was rested and settled, nutrient-rich soil sourced from the Gangetic plain was mixed in it. The many step-wells, or baolis, designed to store rainwater, and large water tanks were pressed into service to water the saplings. Grey water, which was unfit for drinking, or wastewater from homes subjected to one-stage filtration was – and is still used – to irrigate Delhi’s green parks and avenues. The care of saplings was carefully planned and detailed.

Mustoe ensured the base of the trees had space to grow and thrive. Avenues were planned in three-metre wide beds, under-planted with shrubs. Pedestrian paths were laid out behind them, ensuring a pleasant walk under the shade of the trees. Walkways were often made with terracotta bricks without a concrete base, allowing the water to percolate, thereby reducing waterlogging during the monsoons. The roots held down the top soil, preventing wind erosion, ensuring that dust in the area was minimised.

Concretisation of Delhi

The present-day culture of building concrete pavements in Delhi is a sharp departure from Swinton’s instructions. Red and yellow concrete tiles are today interlocked, creating an impermeable surface, choking tree bases and ultimately strangulating them. Rainwater does not seep through and is wasted, leading to further depletion of groundwater levels, as well as waterlogging in the monsoons. In the summers, these pavements turn into heat magnets.

Underplanting around a pilkhan. Photo credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.

The revamped New Moti Bagh in South Delhi is a perfect example of the lack of vision in contemporary urban planning. A wide green belt with triple layer of tree planting should have protected residents from the fumes on the Ring Road at the very least, given that they were supposed to be expanding vertically, in theory, leaving more land for green cover. Instead, reports suggest that 10% of the trees that were initially planted in the redevelopment phase have already withered away, primarily because these were not native to the region.

Another makeover that has resulted in the visible destruction of trees is that of the revamping of the Sector 18 Market in Noida. Prior to the revamp, the centre of the market had a pleasant, triangular park fringed with avenues of pilkhan. The redesign did away with the park, and steel traps now surround the trees that are heating and burning the trunks, thereby preventing their growth and slowly killing them.

Planting work on Prithviraj Road. Photo credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.

Amidst this destruction, as the government tries to further denude the city of trees, it has been heartening to see citizens protest, both online and offline, and it is important that this should not lose steam. This monsoon is an ideal opportunity to plant trees in a city that needs several lakhs of them – apart from a curb on cars – for its air quality to improve.

Resident welfare associations too have to step in. For instance, in my neighbourhood in Noida, the RWA has already contacted the horticulture department for a list of saplings (amaltas, gulmohar, jacaranda and kachnar) around five feet in height. The department is also providing us tree guards. Most residents have agreed to care for the trees planted along their boundary. We planted a wonderful baobab in the park a couple of years ago, which is flourishing.

Jamun trees lining Firoz Shah Road. Photo credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.

Even at a personal level, housing societies can take up several initiatives. These include planting trees with canopies instead of palms and converting leaf litter to compost. It’s time residents were not squeamish about it.

Here are some do-it-yourself tips to ensure the trees flourish:

  • Dig a pit that is two feet in width and four feet in depth. Use a herbal pesticide such as neem oil or neemkhali to sanitise the pit. Leave it open for seven to 10 days. Ensure the area is not water logged.
  • Mix in well-rotted gobarkhad into the mound of earth. In case the soil is too compact and clay-like, add leaf compost. Let this mound rest, uncovered. Manure generates heat and can lead to root burn.
  • After at least a week, plant a slightly large sapling, four-to five feet in height, taking care not to disturb the roots too much. Compact the earth to ensure it is firmly embedded. Use a tree guard if on the road; stake it for support if inside a garden. Water it well.

Hopefully this will enhance the green cover a few years down the line and will be a small step towards saving Delhi’s distressed urban landscape.

A pilkhan in Noida surrounded by a steel trap. Photo credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.