Vol. XLII No. 28 July 15, 2018

Trees, Cities and Economics

R Arun Kumar

AT a time when the apologists of neoliberal economic reforms are celebrating World Bank’s declaration of India as the sixth biggest economy, two of the most important cities of our country – Delhi, the political capital and Mumbai, the financial capital are busy exposing the hollowness of such a growth. Successive neoliberal governments promoted cities as the engines of growth. For common people, the costs of such a growth are much higher than the accrued benefits.

The ongoing monsoon rains have exposed the skewed growth model of Mumbai, where more than 52 percent of its population resides in slums. The city’s infrastructure was found wanting as it struggled to cope with the heavy downpour. In addition to low-lying areas which are always susceptible to flooding, many new regions too witnessed water-logging. The transport lifeline of the city, the local train network was affected due to the submergence of tracks (which prompted an angry judiciary to suggest their privatisation – a panacea to disaster). Schools and colleges were shut, many offices functioned with less than their optimal level and even air traffic was affected. All this because of a heavy downpour in a fast growing economy! (IMF predicts the economy to grow at a rate of more than 7 percent, well above the global average?)

It is indeed easy to blame the ‘poor’ monsoon. The question that needs to be asked is, with so much progress in the fields of science and technology and development, why does a heavy downpour bring us down? One prospective answer lies in bad urban planning.


Bad urban planning not only denies the city of an efficient drainage system, but also denies it from developing one. The reason for this is simple – it is commercial interests and not the interests of the people (the city) that drive the policies determining urban growth. Rampant concretisation, encroachments of common spaces, depleting green cover, describe urbanisation. The concept of putting urban land to maximum utilisation led to a change in regulatory rules and in the vertical growth of cities. Multi-storied buildings, according to experts, not only occupy the surfaces, but also the ground beneath them, due to multi-storied basements. This obstructs proper water absorption and coupled with bad or choked drainages, leads to water-logging. Mumbai is a testimony.

Delhi, though not immune to water-logging, has other concerns. Dust storms that engulf the city, giving it rather an unpleasant but distinct identity, have in the recent period increased their frequency. According to the Wildlife Institute, “denuding of forests is advancing the desert, particularly in gap areas with increasing intensity of dust storms”. Right from the expansion of metro, widening of the highways, to the construction of buildings, trees are an ‘obstruction’ to every ‘developmental’ activity in the capital city, as is everywhere else.

According to reports, Delhi generates nearly 4000 tonnes of construction waste every day, which ensures that we not only ‘walk’ on construction waste, but even ‘breathe’ it through the air. No wonder World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks Delhi as the sixth most polluted city in the world (the same report states India has 14 of world’s 20 most polluted cities). The problem is not only construction waste, but even construction. Criticising the way our cities are built, an expert laments that “the result is a pronounced ‘heat island’ effect”, which make our cities “considerably hotter than the surrounding rural ones”. And, “heat islands don’t just mean higher city temperatures; they also produce more sulphur and nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia” – in short toxic pollutants. Gautam Bhatia, an architect questions the very concept of development (construction activites) of our cities: “Large chunks of city centres are being reconceptualised in Delhi, Mumbai’s Bandra, and Bengaluru’s Indira Nagar….Not everything can be converted into a commercial venture”.

Construction, with the concept of looking everything as a ‘commercial venture’ gained pace, after the introduction of neoliberal policies. The central government in its policy document, ‘Housing Policy For All (2007)’ unambiguously makes this clear stating that the National Housing Policy, 1994 is a product of an economic view which encourages Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in various sectors and ‘involves’ private investment. Taking further these ideas, the 2007 policy states that the central government would, ‘encourage adoption of critical urban reforms….encourage FDI in the urban housing and infrastructure sectors’ and promote ‘Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model’. It further explicitly states that the government would work to develop ‘convergence between urban sector initiatives and financial sector reforms’.

Though these policies were framed by the then Congress government, the BJP did not find it necessary to revise them as they did not contradict with their economic philosophy. Moreover, the BJP is taking them further ahead by ‘deepening the reforms’. Land in urban areas is one of the most sought after and exploited commodities and is hence targeted by these reforms. The present BJP government in its Report, ‘Public Private Partnership Models for Affordable Housing’ (September, 2017) expresses its intention of making available vast tracts of land owned by ‘many central and state government departments and agencies’, which are, ‘in excess of their requirements’ to the private sector. This is done in the name of ensuring ‘affordable housing for all’.

Hard selling the government’s reform agenda in a real estate and infrastructure investors summit in September 2017, Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri expressed concern over the private sector for “so far not entering affordable housing segment despite huge scope for the same under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) and an enabling eco-system put in place through several concessions and incentives offered including the grant of infrastructure status for this segment”. Relaxation of regulatory requirements is one of the incentives given to private investors, together with the offering of government land, which can be exploited for commercial purposes. Building housing units has become an aside.

What this actually meant in practice has come to the fore recently in Delhi. Certain areas in Delhi are earmarked for ‘redevelopment’ by the union government for providing housing units for government employees. This work was assigned to the public sector, National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC). The union cabinet in July 2016 decided that the “project shall be implemented on self-financing basis by sale of commercial Built-up Area (BUA) in Nauroji Nagar and parts of Sarojini Nagar, adjoining the Ring Road”. The present Vice President of the country, proudly owning this decision taken during his tenure as the minister for urban affairs, further stated that the Project includes the construction of the ‘World Trade Centre’ that “will be major land mark in the evolving skyline of the city of Delhi” (May 2018).

According to reports, the NBCC has planned the project in such a manner that the commercial space is proportionally much higher than the residential space. For realising this, 16,500 trees are to be uprooted and already NBCC has recklessly cut hundreds of full grown, old trees. Rules state, for every tree cut, compulsory compensatory afforestation is a must. The Comptroller and Audit General (CAG), in its report (February, 2018) passed a damning indictment on the performance of various agencies on this count. This report notes that a bare 30 percent of the promised afforestation targets were met by these agencies. The NBCC’s own performance is even dismal. In East Kidwai Nagar, where it is involved, it had planted only 16 percent of the promised number of trees. And disgustingly, as per reports, NBCC tried to coerce land owners who are residing in an area adjacent to its project to vacate. All of this is done with an eye for profits.

If this is the extent to which a public sector entity can go to earn profits, we can well imagine the exploitative machinations of private real estate investors. They will use all their power to evict residents, cut trees and flout environmental norms. They do this with the explicit knowledge that the government of the day is there to stand by them. People and environment are never a concern.

Residents of Delhi, including number of youngsters, reacted angrily questioning this flawed developmental model and protested NBCC’s plan to cut trees in their locality. Ruling on a case filed before it, the High Court stayed the felling of trees, even questioning if ‘Delhi can afford’ such an indiscriminate deforestation. People have answered that ‘Delhi cannot’. But unfortunately, they wanted to be ‘apolitical’.

In order to save our cities, country and future, it is necessary to understand the politics and economics driving our urban policies. We cannot fight pollution and environmental degradation unless we are armed with this knowledge. A clean and affordable city is possible only when the society is cleansed off neoliberal philosophy.