Tale of two cities' misplaced priorities: The Delhi tree fiasco and Mumbai rain crisis

They used to think of green spaces, water, air and civic infrastructure. Our cities don't make sense anymore.

Updated: Jun 28, 2018, 13:06 PM IST

I know we have come a long way

We're changing day-to-day
But tell me: where do the children play?
                         -- Cat Stevens

That old number by folk singer Cat Stevens turned Yusuf Islam comes to mind this week as Delhi and Mumbai battle different kinds of environmental and administrative issues. Suddenly, Delhi-ites have woken up to the reality that at least 14,000 trees were to be felled in the heart of the capital city to make way for housing complexes for government officials, and, hold your breath, parking for 70,000 cars!

While a Chipko Movement of sorts with a fresh batch of tree huggers raise alarm and the Delhi High Court at least temporarily forbids the felling of trees until July 4, in Mumbai, a plastic ban takes effect precisely on a day monsoon rains paralyse the financial capital in an annual ritual. We are told plastic bags, thermocol packaging material and even condoms clog drains and cause flooding, and one wonders why this ban could not have come into force earlier. But better late than never, as they say.

In Delhi, the tree fiasco is another occasion for the Aam Aadmi Party government and its favourite target, Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, to play a tu-tu, mai-mai game of exchanging blame even as the AAP (mercifully) joins a loud chorus of citizens trying to bring attention to the felling of trees amid one of the worst heat waves in recent memory. 

The Comptroller and Auditor General notes that Delhi's Tree Authority, responsible for preservation and census of trees, met just once between 2014 and 2017, while it is supposed to meet at least once in three months. 

Overall, it seems to me that both the Delhi tree crisis and the Mumbai rains reflect a case of misplaced priorities in governance. We have had 27 years of liberalised economic growth and there seems to be an obsession with Western-style urban growth and Chinese-style infrastructure expansion without understanding that neither our demographics nor our administration are right for that. Most of all, we also need to ask as a monsoon-dependent, water-scarce economy as to how we are going to manage it all.

Where do our children play if there are concrete monstrosities where parks ought to be? I grew up in Lutyens' Delhi as the son of a government official and the grassy patches where I used to play cricket now have tarpaulin-covered sedans standing on a carpet of dust.  It is fashionable among spunky right-wing chatterers to bash Ed Lutyens now as a symbol of Westernised liberal thinking after the New Delhi he built, but the celebrated British architect gave us a city that acknowledged and celebrated the city's tropical ecology with single-storeyed bungalows and wide avenues that housed a range of trees.

It breaks the heart now to hear that neem, Ashoka and peepal trees are among those planned to be felled to erect concrete apartments for sarkari babus.

A drive past the cloverleaf traffic interchange at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences will now show you a welter 6 to 15-storey matchbox offices/apartments where once stood two-storeyed homes in Kidwai Nagar separated by spacious lawns. I can understand the space crunch in an increasingly congested city, but the answer to the problem is not to come up with structures that will increase the congestion even further! Also consider the fact that these monstrosities stand opposite two of Delhi's biggest hospitals. Apart from increasing the congestion they are hurting the sick!

Last year, Maharashtra's arguably environment-friendly Chief Minister Dev Fadnavis announced Mumbai will get an urban arts commission covering design, aesthetics and environment along the lines of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission. 

But, is that of any use when the views of such bodies are ignored? 

Way back in 2013, the DUAC had frowned on the Kidwai Nagar monstrosities that are now a reality. We just did not see that more was coming.

The National Green Tribunal is supposed to have approved the government flats in Delhi, though it beats me how or why. The approval was dubious and conditional and there is a case to examine the details. NGT's approval based on a compensatory planting of trees seems to be full of holes and does not truly take into account the nature of the city's congestion, the difficulties of re-growing precious tree species and changes in climatic conditions.

Meanwhile, an efficiently built metro railway now covers all four corners of the sprawling metropolis. The Supreme Court is hearing cases against Noida developers who could not build, deliver or sell the apartments they had built because of a real estate demand crunch. I just wonder why can't babus commute to the city from expansive suburbs like Noida instead of being cooped up in congested colonies. Clearly, somewhere the government has got its priorities wrong.

The same goes for Mumbai, where a flat on Napean Sea Road can cost as much as Rs 202 crore for some but in a city that sees more poor migrants coming to serve such people. A drive up to Navi Mumbai shows expansive greens and much less expensive apartments. Can't the authorities come up with an aggressive decongestion policy? We produce Sachin Tendulkars from the Shivaji Park area, where one maidan serves god knows how many kids. Where do the children play, indeed?

It seems that in order to serve the netas of Dilli and the barons of Mumbai, millions of people have to choke our cities. The time has come to consider the idea that economic growth is not everything and an urban crisis, lack of green spaces, water shortages, air pollution and civic infrastructure have to be considered upfront. They used to think of these things before what I call the Growth Monster was unleashed upon India.

We badly need to reorder priorities so that they can make sense to ordinary citizens.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)