There are many communities living on the fringes of the threatened Delhi Ridge – the city’s only lung space. The Delhi Ridge stretches over a distance of 35 km, from Bhatti Mines to southeast of the 700 year old Tughlaqabad, branching in different directions, and finally tapering towards the northern end near Wazirabad on the western banks of Yamuna river.
While one side of the locality is home to residential high-rises, large malls, five-star hotels, corporate offices and luxurious farmhouses for the city’s elites, the other side, is dotted with men and women, living in shanty houses, open defecation practitioners trudging into the deep forests next door-holding on to their flattened bottles.
One such cluster exists on Kusum Pahadi hilltop near Vasant Vihar where the residents have direct access to the forest. The pahad isn’t easy to locate and is quite a climb past the picture perfect locality of Vasant Vihar.
In January 2017, LIGHTS Research Foundation conducted a study on a small portion of Delhi Ridge – around Aravali Biodiversity Park and Jawaharlal Nehru University using remote sensed satellite images. The study revealed that the built up area has increased from about 10 per cent in 1991 to about 44 per cent in 2016 in the study area.
Also, in the last 25 years, the vegetation cover area has reduced from a whopping 82 to 45 per cent and the reduction has been shown in the figures below.
Landsat satellite images acquired for the period of 1991, 2001, 2011 and 2016 were used to examine the land use change in the area. Temporal changes observed over the last 25 years revealed drastic land use change and forest degradation in this area (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1: Land use and land cover change from 1991 to 2016.
It is obvious that rampant encroachment of a protected forest is taking place right under the noses of the Delhi authorities. The Foundation team drove up Kusum Pahadi and found houses are forking into the forests – it was an eye opener.
The boundary wall was observed to have been broken in several places leading to a rough uneven path through the forest which goes right up to a luxury mall in Vasant Kunj. The path is being used by many inhabitants of this encroachment as a shortcut to areas near Vasant Kunj where they might be engaged in odd jobs. Youngsters on bikes were rampantly violating the ‘protected’ forest area.
According to the Delhi Master Plan 2021, Aravali Biodiversity Park has been classified into ‘city forest’ area. But there isn’t any mention of the park being protected or not.
Strangely, the 2001 plan categorizes the park as under ‘recreational as well as residential category’ which probably opened the floodgates for disorderly and unruly encroachment by one and all.
Delhi Ridge is responsible for ecological functions like protecting Delhi from heat and dust, serving as a groundwater recharge zone, and also protects a wide variety of flora and fauna.
However, the ridge has thinned out over the years with sparse tree canopy due to mismanagement caused by the control spread over different agencies. This has resulted in government agencies as well as private institutions being allotted land on the Ridge, either on a permanent or on a temporary basis; besides unchecked growth of unauthorised structures in Ridge area. Delhi Ridge forest has an irreplaceable character and a unique role to play in Delhi’s future and must be preserved.
In a conversation with G’nY, Birendra Singh Chauhan, Asst. Engineer of The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) said, “Kusum Pahadi it listed as Jhuggie Jhompri Squatter Settlements/Cluster. There are a total of 10,000 houses on the hill. If we assume 5 persons in each household, there are about 50,000 people living there currently. The cluster is about 20-30 years old and most of them are mining labourers who settled there many years ago along with their extended families”
He added, “The forest cover in between Kusum Pahadi and the mall in Vasant Kunj should be shut to the public. We have been urging the forest department to shut the entry and exit which is being used by the dwellers of Kusum Pahadi, where all sorts of activities are rampant inside the forest. Wood is being burned adding to the pollution and open defecation is being practised widely. The open pits inside are brimming with dirt and the entire area is very dirty”
Forest and wildlife department officials met their counterparts from Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Municipal Corporations to discuss an action plan to demarcate the northern and central ridge, which fall under multiple land-owning agencies. However, none of the information was made public.
Delhi forest officials confirmed to G’nY that the notification and demarcation is going on. There claimed to have faced a few issues with the revenue department but the surveys are going on now. New boundary walls will be built and the existing disputed ones will be looked into.
Interestingly, DUSIB claims that they have not been able provide amenities like basic mobile toilets in Kusum Pahadi, blaming the Forest Department for not giving permission.
However, the Forest Department claims that they have already decided the designated spots for the mobile toilets and informed DUSIB. With nothing happening on ground, open defecation continues rampantly.
RTI Activist Anil Sood of Ridge Bachao Andolan asked for details including maps and measurements of encroachments in the ridge area in 2016. The forest department consumed months and months to give just one copy of affidavit which they have already had with them.
He said, “Delhi Ridge is being exploited left right and Centre by the Government agencies only and the encroachments have been encouraged by corruption, political patronage and vote bank politics. A part of ridge though demarcated has not been notified by design by DDA. Multiplicity of agencies is just an excuse. The authorities do not hesitate from filing false affidavits before Courts as no one is hauled up for perjury.”
The future of Delhi ridge, and of green spaces in Delhi in general, may depend on re-imagining of the city and its ecology. Despite the relatively settled status of Delhi Ridge as Reserved Forest, the ridge is changing every day, in ways both subtle and dramatic.