Restoring Delhi’s Central Ridge – Dilli hai jiska naam I: Pradip Krishen

We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself.  It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades, and we requested them to write for Kafila. 

This series is titled, Dilli Hai Jiska Naam, and here is the first piece, by PRADIP KRISHEN

Restoring Delhi’s Central Ridge:  Pradip Krishen

(All images by Pradip Krishen)

Delhi’s Central Ridge is big — a little more than 850 hectares. That’s 8 and a half square kilometres of semi-wild forest in the heart of a totteringly large metropolis.

The Central Ridge is mostly open thorn forest but it can be quite dense in pockets. An evergreen climber called ‘heens’ (Capparis sepiaria) adds to the impression of density

It’s true the Ridge is degraded and filled with invasive trees from South America, its potholed roads are used as a rubbish dump and there are all sorts of other problems inside, but it’s still remarkable that the Central Ridge exists at all. And that it hasn’t been taken over to make multi-storeyed flats for civil servants. Or worse.

The President’s Bodyguard leases a polo ground inside the Central Ridge and does some damage by scattering rubbish from its Polo clubhouse indiscriminately on the Ridge.

I can’t say I know all of the Central Ridge. But it’s now been nearly 50 years since I first started going in there, and there’s a portion — it could be as much as 90 or 100 hectares or so — that I can claim to know really well because I walk there every day. I’m writing a journal-style book about the C Ridge — only about this parcel I’m most familiar with — and I hope to give you a sense of what it is about the C Ridge that I find not just fascinating but important from the angle of how this city is evolving and growing.

The President’s Bodyguard spreads a thick layer of old stable hay on paths on the Ridge so that riders number 2 and 3 (etc) don’t have to ride in clouds of dust kicked up by rider number 1

First, a bit of history to tell you how this swathe of land came to be set aside from the built-up city. By 1912, the decision to make Delhi the imperial capital had been taken and the Central Ridge (it was called the ‘Southern’ or ‘New Delhi’ Ridge then) was thought of as the western, more elevated flank of the new city, with the Yamuna forming its low, eastern edge. All of the new capital —  its streets and sprawling bungalows for senior government servants, its parks and expansive roundabouts, Connaught Place and Gol Market and all else — was contained within these two cushions. It was to be a garden city built to accommodate (please don’t laugh) 53,000 people!

In early plans, this distinctive, rocky landscape to the west was often labelled an ‘amenity forest’. This is a term used in England mostly to denote a place to ride horses in. One end of the Ridge was marked out for a new Cantonment. At its northern end, behind the Viceregal Palace, a polo ground was carved out of the scrubby forest and in time, horses belonging to the President’s Bodyguard were stabled inside the Ridge.

There isn’t a lot of information about this tract from early in the 20th century but it’s fairly clear that the C Ridge was in poor shape — overgrazed and gnawed away to a point where it could not have been a pleasant sight. It was not really thought of as part of New Delhi. Yet there was a moment in the rains of 1912 when the C Ridge teetered on the brink of becoming a key part of the new capital city. This happened solely because Lord Hardinge was taken riding on the C Ridge in August of that year. The Ridge must have become, like it is in the rains every year, green and vibrant with grasses and new growth.  It was a time when the architect-planners had still not decided where to situate Government House (aka the ‘Viceregal Palace’, which became ‘Rashtrapati Bhavan’). Raisina hill was favoured but the axis for the grand processional avenue — Kingsway (later Rajpath) — ran in a north-easterly direction, scything through Paharganj and ending up somewhat ingloriously behind a side darwaza of the Jama Masjid. This meant that Paharganj would have to be cleared out — an expensive proposition that was bound to be resisted — and the planners were looking for a more viable and less expensive alternative.

On a clear day you can see the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan from a high point on the Ridge.

After his ride on the Ridge, Hardinge wrote excitedly to Lutyens, who was still playing deck quoits on a steamer heading back to England.

“If it is possible to plant the Ridge at moderate expense… it is perfectly obvious to me that the only site for Government House is on the Ridge above Talkatora, commanding the most lovely views over the city of Delhi and over the whole plain, both east and west. Can you imagine how splendid a white Government House with red tiles and a gilt dome would look in such a commanding situation, dominating the whole of the country round, while the slope from the situation of Government House down to the plain would be covered with terraces and fountains like a miniature Versailles? “

But Lutyens wasn’t enthused and difficulties with the orientation of Kingsway were soon resolved by laying it out along an east-west axis, also by decapitating Raisina Hill to make more room for Government House. So the Ridge was bypassed but not completely forgotten, because for the next few years — interrupted by WW1 — there were several sporadic (and largely ineffectual) attempts to plant it up.

Hardinge’s first sentence, quoted above, was key — he worried about whether it was going to be possible to plant interestingly on the thin-soiled, rocky Ridge. Because if not, the whole idea was a non-starter. So he invited his favourite forester — Peter Clutterbuck, Conservator of Forests in the United Provinces — to dash down to Delhi to take a look at the Ridge and “Pl. advise”. Clutterbuck gave Hardinge a thumbs up and drew up an impressively long list of trees and shrubs that would do well on the Ridge, but it’s a curious list, to say the least.

The very first tree on Clutterbuck’s list was ‘Acacia arabica’, which is the (now outmoded) scientific name for the babool. This is a mid-sized tree that prospers in deep alluvium where there is water close to the surface. You see it growing cheerfully along meds of farmers’ fields when you drive out from Delhi in almost any direction, so much so that the babool is regarded as an unfailing ‘indicator’ of arable land. But there isn’t a single stick of the babool growing anywhere on the C Ridge — not then and not now. The Ridge is simply too rocky and dry with a recalcitrant iron-rich soil derived from the breakdown of quartzitic rock. And this is just one example of how Clutterbuck and generations of foresters who followed after him were not at all attuned to the ecological character of places like the Ridge. The result — which continues to happen today — is that whenever the Forest Department tries to plant up the Ridge, it does so with a selection of tree species that is not suited to the specific character of the Ridge. Their failure is abject. And inexcusable.

At first, the ambition of growing a nice-looking forest on the Ridge turned on whether or not it would be possible to do some heavy earthmoving in order to retain monsoon moisture. A scheme was drawn up in 1913 that involved blasting and cutting on the Ridge to create large terraces to hold up at least 3 feet of soil, along with 2 pumping stations and a network of pipelines. But the Great War lurked around the corner and GOI shied away from the expense, opting instead for a policy of encouraging ‘natural regeneration’. In August of 1914, all of the C Ridge was notified as a Reserved Forest and was fenced off against grazing. GOI funds for afforestation finally trickled in in 1918, then stopped, and were re-allocated in 1920-21. An area of 1,102 acres (about 450 hectares) was earmarked for planting but funding was provided only for an experimental plot of 202 acres (80 hectares) which was later expanded to 242 acres. For the rest of the 900 acres, funding did not materialise.

The trouble with afforestation, especially in stressed landscapes, is that its success depends entirely on a scrupulously correct choice of well-adapted native species. But no one seems to have had any idea of what to plant on the C Ridge, and in the end none of the 8 or 9 species that were chosen and planted worked out. Trees like karanj, shisham, kachnar, tun, putranjiva and arjun are adapted to more moist conditions and deeper soil, and for these reasons did not stand a chance on the Ridge. As soon as watering was withdrawn, all the seedlings perished, every one.

As late as 1927-28, the total budget for planting up the C Ridge was a paltry Rs.9,000, which shrank to Rs.8,000 the next financial year, and this figure became a recurring budgetary estimate uptil 1931. (8,000 rupees is not nearly as meagre as it sounds in today’s terms but it certainly wasn’t a generous amount either).

Annual Reports on tree planting in the ‘Southern Ridge’ (= C Ridge) in this period make dismal reading:

AR for 1928-29 — Progress in afforestation received a setback as a result of the failure of the monsoon and severe winter frost, and practically every tree grown within the last 3 years was destroyed. Re-sowing is in hand… Rs 6,650/- was spent on afforestation.

AR for 1930-31 — Plantations of Prosopis and Albizzia and the like species have produced good results. Eucalyptus planted last year made good progress but 80% died of heat in May and June 1931. Kikar [Acacia nilotica] plantations also failed, and it is now proposed to experiment with “Jow” [Tamarix], because the area is heavily impregnated with salts.

AR for 1931-32 — Of the many kinds of trees planted in the areas impregnated with saltpetre, all failed except Prosopis and Jow which are making fair headway. It is anticipated that within a few years these trees will cover the area where others less hardy have refused to grow.

Review on Arboricultural & Horticultural Operations for 1933-34 — …except for the small sum of Rs.200/- expended on seed sowing, the work on the Southern Ridge was limited to conservation and a rapid increase in forest growth cannot therefore be expected. The expenditure was 2,159/- and the revenue from sale of… grass was Rs.875/-

Year in and year out, all the way through till Independence, reports on ‘arboricultural’ operations on the C Ridge have the same dreary tone: not enough funds (average annual spending was Rs.2,500), poor results with planting, frequent fires and frosts, and little by way of success to report except, singularly, with Prosopis juliflora.

Isn’t it surprising that experienced foresters couldn’t see what was going on, couldn’t understand why their planting methods were failing again and again?

R.N. Parker was an exception, a Punjab-based forest officer who visited the C Ridge in 1914 and noted it was bare, with ‘practically nothing that had not been cut and browsed down to a few inches.’ Parker noted the failure of the Forest Department’s new saplings but he also tells us that by 1918–19, ‘trees and shrubs had sprung up from roots left in the ground and in places form thickets it would be difficult to get through’.

It should have been evident to anyone who was looking at the Ridge with a practised (or even an observer’s keen) eye that protection would have gone a long way towards helping some of the original wild rootstock regenerate. When Parker re-visited the C Ridge in 1935, 16 years after he wrote his first article (for Indian Forester), he says that most of the work done in the intervening years had been completely wasted. The authorities had persisted with planting ‘unsuitable species’ which struggled in the dry, rocky soil. Only Prosopis juliflora had shown outstanding results. Originally imported as seeds into India in the 1880s, this tree from central and southern America had shown it was capable of withstanding drought, alkalinity, rocky conditions, skeletal soils… Sooner than anyone anticipated, it became a scourge, outcompeting everything else by its sheer reproductive vigour and an armoury of toxic alkaloids produced in its root zone, until the whole of the Ridge — and considerably beyond — became a bleak monoculture of this invasive tree. We still live with the legacy of its unwise introduction. Nearly as bad as taking rabbits to Australia.

William Robert Mustoe (1878-1942) became Superintendent of Horticultural operations in New Delhi in 1919. He is best known as the gardener who joined Lutyens for breakfast at his bungalow in Sunehri Bagh Road every morning in the winter months, where they plotted which trees to plant on New Delhi’s avenues. Mustoe had previously served in the Punjab — Delhi, you must remember, was a southern district of the Punjab until 1911 — so he knew this territory and its climate well. Even though it wasn’t part of his remit, Mustoe threw himself energetically into the task of planting up the Ridge.

One of his assistants, Walter George, says it was Mustoe who first proposed Prosopis juliflora as the superlatively sturdy tree that would reboise the Ridge.

In Walter George’s account:

“…He [Mustoe] went out in his old car on a Sunday. I have sometimes gone with him taking a few coolies with crow-bars, pick-axes, etc.; he would walk over an area, and then say, ‘Loosen that crack a bit for me’ or ‘Dig a little here’, and then he would put in his seeds. Gradually the Ridge has been covered with Prosopis; when it had become established, better things were planted. It has spread all over the State and it could help to redeem even the Rajputana desert if properly handled.”

By the early 1930s, when construction on Government House was nearing completion, this part of the Ridge — the eastern end abutting Cantonment Road (later, Willingdon Crescent; Baba Kharak Singh Marg; eventually Mother Teresa Crescent) — now approximated a forest, albeit a forest predominantly of Prosopis juliflora.

Dawn in Mangar Bani in the dry season, when dhau trees are leafless

We know a little about wildlife on the Ridge from records of killings that took place. A total of 160 porcupines were trapped and killed here in the winter of 1926–27 — they were blamed for gnawing at the bases of trees and killing them. A few years later Viceroy Willingdon went out shooting on the Ridge (even though shooting was prohibited) and his party bagged 30 partridges and 13 hares. Jackal eluded the party, but it was the beginning of a long campaign by New Delhi’s Municipal Committee to rid the C Ridge of jackals as their Excellencies quailed at the sound of their howling at night.

This is not a pretty story but must be told. In August of 1934 the Military Secretary to the Viceroy (MSV) wrote to the Chief Commissioner, Delhi, asking him to “take organized steps towards exterminating the jackals” on the Ridge. The Chief Commissioner forwarded this request (The King asked the Queen, and the Queen asked the Dairymaid…) to the NDMC, which hired a team of jackal-shooters to do the needful.

The Secretary NDMC, reported to the MSV every fortnight:

8 jackals shot in the first 10 days of September 1934

Another 12 jackals eliminated between September the 11th and 17th

15 more killed between 18th September and the 30th

The carnage continued through October and November and was resumed the following year after the rains.

In September 1935, MSV wrote to the Chief Commissioner to thank him.

“Their Excellencies [the Viceroy and Vicereine] are so grateful for the action you have instituted for killing jackals. They feel it is going to make all the difference probably next cold weather, as they really were disturbed nearly every night last year by the noise of jackals howling in the Viceregal Estate.”

Encouraged, the NDMC’s shooters killed 83 more jacks in September of 1935.

Another 60 in October. 39 more in November 1935.

And still the jackals clung on.

5 years later the President of the NDMC wrote to the Chief Commissioner:

“…I have the honour to report that measures to suppress the jackal nuisance in New Delhi have been vigorously pursued. 405 jackals were destroyed during the year ending 31st March 1940, and 221 from 1st April 1940 to 30th September 1940.”

Readers of this article will be much relieved to learn that despite this diligent genocide, the population of jackals (I call them ‘Peeping Jacks’. Who can blame them for being so shy?) on the Ridge is still healthy. I see them every day because they have learnt to eat not just rotis and chana but bananas, mangoes and tomatoes that are scattered on the road for the macaques.

I see ‘peeping jacks’ nearly every day on the road leading in, where they scavenge for scraps of food that are brought for the macaques and cows

When you hear a jackal doing its woo-woo call, it’s never a single jackal vocalizing but a pair calling in unison, proclaiming its territory and affirming their pair-bond. On several occasions in the last few months I have heard one pair starting to call, only to be answered from every direction of the compass by other pairs saying, ‘We’re here, too!’ So this is a happy ending to the story of peeping jacks on the C Ridge. May their tribe increase!

Mangar Bani is the closest and by far the most impressive natural forest we have in the NCR. It is dominated by an amazing tree called dhau (Anogeissus pendula) which is able to dominate steep, rocky hillsides in nearly pure stands.

But not such a happy ending for several other animals that have disappeared relatively recently. Upto about 8 years ago, I was keenly aware of the presence of a small herdlette of neelgai, not because I saw them often but because they leave calling card droppings in community middens. They have all disappeared now, unviable in small numbers. There are no foxes and black-naped hares left any more on the Ridge. Monitor lizards have become rare and elusive. Snakes? This is the time when you see them, in the rains, but I’ve seen only one ratsnake all year (in 2020). I haven’t seen any civets for a long time now but then they’re strictly nocturnal, so one needs to be incredibly lucky to get a sighting at all. But I know they’re around because I found tell-tale droppings when bistendu ripens its fruit in March-April.

What else? Only a fairly modest list of birdlife, because there aren’t enough different kinds of trees with a variety of things to eat. On the other hand, lots of butterflies and probably a fair representation of insects and fungi. And on the roads leading in, feral pigs, well fed macaques and cows that all semi-tame now.

 

Lots of people drive a short distance into the Ridge to feed the macaques – chapatis, grain, bananas, mangoes, cucumber… They probably hope this charity ‘counts’ for points in Heaven.

The C Ridge is steadily being hollowed out of its animal life. I find crude wire traps in not-so-well hidden places now and again. Probably policemen from Delhi Earth Station having their idea of manly fun. It seems any small animal will do — mongoose, hares, francolin, even peafowl.

All in all, not so great, eh?

So why then do I continue to believe that the C Ridge deserves special attention?

Delhi’s Forest Department laying waste a tract of the Central Ridge in the name of ‘new plantation’.

Because even if everything else above ground is depleted or gone, the Ridge still holds on to its greatest natural treasure — its soil. Unlike everywhere else in Delhi where we are very likely to have compromised the ground with chemicals and other toxic effluvia of human civilisation, the C Ridge’s soil is still alive. Above all, with fungi.

It is only in the last 25 years or so that science has begun to understand the relationships between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in a mutualism that is playfully called the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Billions of tiny hyphae in living soil make up fungal networks (‘mycorrhiza’) that are engaged in processes that are basic to all plant life. Most plants depend on these fungal networks to provide them with nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) from the soil. By injecting radioactive dyes into metabolic pathways in plants and hyphae, scientists are gathering more and more evidence that signalling and communication between plants is also carried by mycorrhizal networks.

So even if we have lost a slew of large mammals and trees that belong naturally to the Ridge, we still have — in its living soil, rife with mycorrhiza — the basic ingredients for regrowing a natural forest. Without it, all would be lost and we’d probably be better off growing condominiums on the Ridge.

Which leads me to my proposition: that Delhi’s C Ridge has tremendous innate potential to become the most wonderful, amazing natural forest inside a capital city anywhere in the world. Canberra could run us close but its imaginative new arboretum lies outside the city, even if it’s right next door. I can’t think of any other capital city that either has or could have a sizeable thriving natural forest at its very heart.

What would it need to accomplish this? For starters, here’s a vision statement

The stated objective could be:

To restore and conserve the original natural character of the Central Ridge as a thriving dry, deciduous jungle in order to avail of the considerable environmental benefits of a vibrant green island in the heart of the City. 

One portion of the Central Ridge will be made into a sustainable public park of outstanding natural beauty for the recreation of people of all types and ages.

I’m hoping this covers all the important sub-objectives I have in mind: careful restoration and conservation of its natural ecology and biodiversity; sustainability; creation of a well-managed public-access park in one portion; strengthening ecosystem services like pollution mitigation, recharge of Delhi’s aquifers… and so on.

Strict riders will need to be drawn up: such as a complete exclusion of heavy machinery and permanent civil works, including paved or impermeable walking surfaces. We will need to feel our way towards a comprehensive list of ‘don’t do’ proscriptions. Because success will depend as much — if not more — on the process as it will on the identification of desirable outcomes, so here’s my suggestions of how I think a Plan should unfold:

Immediately

  • Ensure conservation/protection of the whole of the Central Ridge until such time as a new plan starts to be put in place. Notify it as a National Park under the Wildlife Protection Act and also as a National Geological Monument as a remnant of the Aravallis, the world’s oldest fold mountains
  • Settle all rights once and for all — by extinction, exclusion or confirmation — of all persons or institutions that have a footprint inside the C Ridge. All stakeholders that have no business to be in the C Ridge need to be moved out quickly. This may not be easy but needs to be done through swift due process
  • Prevent and prohibit any sort of planting activities in the interim — even if (or especially if) it is by agencies such as Delhi’s Forest Department which continues to get things egregiously wrong
  • Create a purpose-designed empowered Authority (perhaps under EPCA or the NGT) for the Restoration and Revival of the C Ridge that will bring under its ambit everything to do with the planning and implementation. There are reasons to be extremely careful while deciding under whose authority this work will be performed. The Delhi government has no jurisdiction over agencies like the President’s Bodyguard and the BSF, etc. and this will seriously impede its efficacy to helm the Planning. GOI ought to be involved but should NOT lead (through agencies such as the MOEFCC or the CPWD). The new Authority needs to be set up bearing all these pitfalls in mind, empowered with independent ambit and adequate funding through a grant from Parliament

Short-term

  • Appoint a Task Force of experts that will conduct baseline studies leading to a comprehensive survey and understanding of the natural resources of the C Ridge — plants, birds, animals, insects, fungi, micro-organisms, soil types, geology, hydrology…
  • Identify ‘model’ landscapes/ecosystems such as dry, deciduous forests in other places in the Aravallis such as Sariska, Mangar Bani or Kumbhalgarh, which will serve as inspiration and unmediated templates for the restoration work

 

  • Frame policy planning guidelines for every aspect of the restoration work by a team of experts drawn from the disciplines of ecological restoration, landscape architecture, design and aesthetics, interpretive design, GIS, satellite mapping, integrated conservation planning, urban and district planning, geology, archaeology, tourism infrastructure and wildlife management. Every one of these disciplines has a role to play in the Planning

Medium-term

  • Formulate and publish a grand Plan of desired outcomes and procedures after carrying out an effective and detailed public consultation
  • Identify the specific character and form of the C Ridge Project — will it be like a City National Park? Will it have inviolable areas? How large/small should the City Park portion be? Take decisions about how it will be managed and who will run it long-term. What will the modes of access be — pedestrians and cycles only? Battery-run special vehicles for the elderly and walking-impaired?
  • Take effective steps for the complete eradication and replacement of Prosopis juliflora by methods that do NOT damage the habitat i.e. decidedly NOT by means of a JCB or by using toxic chemicals such as glyphosate (Round-Up). If large-scale removal of Prosopis juliflora requires amending the law, do so. Ensure that the species chosen to replace Prosopis are unequivocally native and well-adapted to this particular soil, climate and moisture regime Begin the actual work of restoring the original ecology of the C Ridge with interventions that promote only sustainable It is demonstrably possible to plant suitable species that require NO WATERING or care once they are established

 

Vilaiti keekar (Prosopis juliflora) has outcompeted and almost completely edged out native trees on the Ridge. I estimate that Prosopis juliflora makes up over 90% of the trees on the Central Ridge today. Any sensible plan for the Ridge needs to plan for its removal and replacement

  • Introduce species of wildlife such as four-horned antelope, chinkara, sambhar, neelgai, foxes, hedgehogs, hares, etc. that are known to have been denizens of this forest in the recent past… Probably ‘no’ to apex carnivores, such as leopards, but this can be debated
  • Begin the work of reaching out — through high-quality interpretive graphics and digital media — and communicating the intent behind the C Ridge restoration and how it can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages and backgrounds
  • Create carefully thought-through infrastructure for the benefit of visitors to the public-access portions of the Central Ridge National Park. This will include training naturalist guides and wildlife wardens who will play a key role in enhancing the experience and enjoyment of visitors to the C Ridge Park. It could include creating innovative restaurants and interpretation centres…
  • Set up facilities for the scientific study of processes inside the National Park, such as the study of groundwater recharge in quartzitic rock; restoration of the catchment and storm water drainage networks on the Ridge; and the role of fungal networks (mycorrhiza) in the soil; and so on. Access to closed parts of the National Park can be given only for research and monitoring

Long-term

Create and manage well and sustainably the most beautiful natural forest of any major metropolis in the world, one that is used (in part) and loved by its citizens and visitors, creates jobs and livelihoods, spins off vital ecosystem services for the city and is, in itself, a haven for life in all of its 8 and a half square kilometres

Yes, it’s a long list that will need to be debated and discussed threadbare. It’s more than likely I haven’t thought of everything. We will also have to face up to the unpleasant reality that we haven’t yet ‘grown’ or nurtured the right kind of expertise in this country to accomplish this work in the best way possible.

Where are the landscape architects in India who know anything about natural forests? Look at the abysmal state of our Forest Department! Look at the appalling quality of our Interpretation Centres!

Optimistically, I feel it could take another 15 or 20 years before we are able to first nurture and then rely on the ‘right’ kind of professional expertise.

So be it. Better to get it right and do it well later than to make a right mess of it now when we simply don’t have the right kind of people or the right kind of experience to make a truly excellent plan.

So long as it continues to be protected, the C Ridge can wait.

*****************************************************************

Cut back (rudely) to today.

Two Sundays ago, I was walking on the C Ridge with some friends to show them a magical stand of kaim trees that grow in the gravelly bed of stormwater rivulets in one special part of the Ridge. Kaim (or kadamb) is the celebrated tree that Krishna played under in Brindavan. It is found nowhere else on the Ridge except for this one small low-lying tract that a number of different streams drain into. There they were, magnificent kaim trees 70 and 80 feet high, forming a beautiful gallery forest as they followed the seasonal rivulets.

As we were leaving, we must have taken a wrong turn because we suddenly found ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings. I tried to orient myself by the sun and hoped we’d find a good way back when we suddenly came upon complete carnage — heavy earthmoving machinery had cleared, completely swept clean, about 4 or 5 hectares of Ridge forest and a grid of evenly spaced out planting pits gaped open. Ironically, the only things left standing were Prosopis juliflora trees.

I estimate that Prosopis juliflora makes up over 90% of the trees on the Central Ridge today. Any sensible plan for the Ridge needs to plan for its removal and replacement

It was shocking! Especially after the immense natural beauty of what we had just seen.

Who would have done this after the rains, which is the only time anyone can or should plant anything on the Ridge? Why would they have cleared away all the shrubs and lianas that are such an important part of the Ridge flora?

When we walked on a little further, we found several plots of recently planted trees that were mostly completely unsuitable for this particular ecology: goolar, jamun, kassod, kadamb (a different species of kadamb to the kaim), putranjiva, teak…

The next day I shot off a mail to Delhi’s LG and to Delhi’s Forest Minister and 3 days later took some journalists to see this newest example of how the C Ridge is being laid waste. It turns out — from responses quoted in the newspapers — that the Forest Department in Delhi is hiding behind the skirts of a Delhi High Court Judge, who has not only ordered, but specified which tree species and how many of them should be planted on the C Ridge. The FD bleats it’s only doing what it has been ordered to do. And then sends in its JCBs.

‘Nuff said! This has got to stop NOW. Or we will lose one of our city’s greatest assets.

Postscript

I realise I haven’t said anything about what happened to the C Ridge in the period after Independence. Unsurprisingly, it is part of the same unhappy trend except that, until now, the Forest Department has played only a minor role in trying to plant it up (thank god!) That role was played instead by the CPWD which carved out the Buddha Jayanti and Mahavir Jayanti Parks from the C Ridge in 1970 and then proceeded to plant inside them exactly the same species that you see in Lodi Gardens — another instance of a horticulture agency not knowing or understanding the difference between bangar (floodplain) land with deep alluvial soil (Lodi Gardens) and the rocky Ridge.

My daughter, Pia, with 2 of my doggies on the Ridge

The period through the 1960s and early ‘70s in particular, is a sordid story about landgrab and growing encroachments, even by government agencies — Rabindra Rangshala, a BSF camp, Asaram Bapu’s ashram, various schools and institutions, all date back to this time. But equally, and specially after the 1980s, NGOs like Kalpavriksh, Srishti, Toxics Link, and lawyer M.C.Mehta and others came together to rally public interest and support for saving the Ridge from further deterioration. We owe them deep gratitude and kudos.

Since then, solutions to managing the C Ridge have become mired in seemingly intractable problems. Several different civic agencies cling on to conflicting jurisdiction within the 864 hectares of the C Ridge. Land ownership and rights have not been settled. A growing list of court cases and proceedings is either inconclusive or badly stuck. The Ridge Management Board, set up in 1995, has proved itself to be toothless and not that interested anyway in the most fundamental problems of the C Ridge.

To make matters worse, from some time in the 1970s or perhaps a little later, a new scourge in the form of subabool (Leucaena leucocephala) has entered the C Ridge, another South American tree but twice as successful as Prosopis juliflora in its reproductive vigour, and if it’s possible, even better equipped to prosper in the C Ridge’s dry soil. It is now galloping ahead and colonising parts of the C Ridge into pure, dense stands.

Even in its degraded state, walkways on the Ridge can be devastatingly pretty. This picture was taken in July, showing my daughter Mithva walking one of my dogs

Do you think the Forest Department has taken cognizance of subabool’s presence and growing threat? I don’t believe it has even noticed its presence.

Do I need to say any more?

More than ever, we need to go back to the drawing board to make a brand new C Ridge Project we can be really proud of.

Known as the Tree Man of Delhi. Pradip Krishen is the author of ‘ Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide’, and ‘Jungle Trees of Central India.’

4 thoughts on “Restoring Delhi’s Central Ridge – Dilli hai jiska naam I: Pradip Krishen”

  1. Such a lucid read authored by Mr Krishen. And what a compelling and sorry tale of forest management in our country. In spite of the puns, there is a tinge of sadness in this narration… a capital, so many bodies controlling operations and yet, none has the mandate, expertise, interest or wisdom to do something which seems so fundamentally right. However, in this sorry plight panning centuries, lies a hidden opportunity for the current regime to proactively pursue experts and set up a special task-force for the sake of the forest, the people and the smoggy future that lies ahead. And whichever body would step forward to own its future transformation could well assure its glory written in golden letters in the hearts of many (and history).

  2. The Ridge is such a wonderful oasis. I am hopeful that all stakeholders can come together and form a forward thinking, long range plan to restore and preserve what should be considered an Indian National Treasure!

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