Policy Engagements and Blogs

CPR Views – Environmental cost of Development Projects


The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs recently faced the ire of citizens for its decision to cut down at least 14,000 trees for the redevelopment of seven government colonies in the National Capital Region (NCR). While orders from the National Green Tribunal, and subsequently the Delhi High Court put off the felling indefinitely, these did not apply to all areas. Given the high degree of pollution the residents of Delhi grapple with, few agreed with the Centre’s plan to plant a larger number of saplings, citing that they cannot replace full-grown trees. The move raised several environmental concerns and sparked public debate and protest.

In this second edition of ‘CPR Views’, CPR faculty and experts share their comments on this key development.

Manju Menon,
Senior Fellow, CPR Kanchi Kohli,
Researcher, CPR
‘For the last three weeks, Delhi’s citizens have been debating tree felling, compensatory plantations, public participation and urban design in venues like public parks, footpaths, newspapers and television studios. While the trigger was the felling of over 14,000 trees for the ‘redevelopment’ of seven government housing areas in the heart of the capital, the #DelhiTreesSOS and #MyRightToBreathe campaigns have pushed the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) to relook into the project’s design. For now the courts have restrained the felling of trees.

One question that has eluded the discussion so far is whether the construction activity that will be spread over Netaji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Kasturba nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Sriniwaspuri and Mohammadpur, are part of one, two or seven projects (explained below)? These colonies comprise a contiguous area of 571 acres of government housing north and south of the Ring Road near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

In July 2016, the union cabinet approved the development of seven colonies together, giving the sense that this is one large redevelopment plan. The urban development ministry then signed one Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the NBCC (National Buildings Construction Corporation Ltd.) for ‘the project’, clubbing three housing colonies Sarojini, Netaji and Nauroji into one, so that the fully commercial World Trade Centre at Nauroji and large commercial hub at Sarojini could finance government housing and offices. The other four were contracted to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD).

However environment clearances under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 have been pursued for the seven separately. Depending on their size, they have or are in the process of taking an approval from the central environment ministry or the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). This leads to two questions – should the seven be treated as one real estate project? Secondly, if they are separate projects, should they have also been put through a cumulative impact assessment for all the integrated components?

On 24th December 2010, the environment ministry issued an office memorandum (No. J-11013/41/2006-IA.II (I)) for ‘consideration of integrated and inter related projects for grant of environmental clearance.’ If this were to be applied to ‘the project’ in question, then each of these redevelopment projects would need to carry out both individual EIA as well ‘prepare a common EIA report.’ This would allow the expert committees appraising these projects to examine ‘the overall impact of the project as a whole.’

In the present case this has not happened. It is important for the environment ministry to urgently respond to this as citizens have raised fears of increased air pollution, water stress, traffic and loss of green spaces due to these projects. It is still possible for government departments to invoke the precautionary principle and to deliberate on these issues in a transparent manner. This will allow for better and inclusive decisions to be taken.’

Longer articles by Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli can be accessed in The Hindu’, ‘Scroll’. The Wire carried four articles: ‘Under Garb of Govt Housing, Delhi Redevelopment Project Legalises Grabbing Public Property’, ‘Compensatory Afforestation Is Not the Ultimate Solution to Delhi’s Tree Fellings’, ‘The Circular Timeline of Environmental Approvals for Delhi’s Redevelopment’ and ‘In the Shadow of Delhi’s Redevelopment’. ‘ThePrint’ and ‘The Hindu’ carried their opinions, and Kohli’s comments can be found in articles in ‘Firstpost’, ‘Outlook’ and the ‘Times of India’.

Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli also wrote a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, highlighting the violations and lacunae in the Ministry’s grant of the environmental clearances for the redevelopment of four GPRA (General Pool Residential Accommodation) colonies.

Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli also wrote a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urging him to revive Delhi Tree Authority (DTA) and not selectively implement Delhi Tree Preservation Act, 1994.

Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli’s comments on Delhi Government’s Draft Tree Transplantation Policy, 2019 can be read here.

Mukta Naik,
Senior Researcher, CPR
‘Development vs. environment will always be a topic of debate, and given the lived experience of Delhi and its problems with air quality, there is no doubt that we must re-think development projects to minimise environmental damage.

However, the decision to cut over 17,000 mature trees in Delhi is symptomatic of a larger malaise that afflicts the urban development paradigm in India today. This malaise has to do with minimum transparency and lack of public consultation on one hand, and on the other, a dangerous crafting of erroneous design in the language of popular global urban development models like the compact city, transit-oriented development and land value capture to make them palatable.

In the case of the redevelopment projects in question in Delhi, propounding the merits of increased density in the city core and the resulting carbon savings to ‘sell’ them is simply wrong. The reality is that these new developments are car-centric in design, else they would have not been gated communities for government babus but integrated with the city fabric. A compact city model would have included affordable housing, walking and cycling infrastructure and public spaces that are accessible to all. Delhi’s violent past of evicting slum-dwellers from the core and resettling them at the periphery, is proof that the city planners do not have the compact city in mind at all. Designing around trees is essential, but not adequate. The Ministry of Urban Affairs must go back to the drawing board and redesign these projects such that they kickstart a changed urban narrative towards improved liveability.’

Mukta Naik participated in a television debate on ‘NDTV’, which can be accessed here.

Arkaja Singh,
Fellow, CPR
‘It is ironic – in context of all the recent discussion about the land redevelopment projects in Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, and before that in East Kidwai Nagar – that the Guidelines for the Smart Cities Mission of the national government name East Kidwai Nagar as one of two examples (the other is the Bhendi Bazar redevelopment project in Mumbai) of what a land redevelopment project supported by the Mission could look like.

The East Kidwai Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar projects follow a particular model, in which government-owned land occupied for housing for government employees is given over for redevelopment, to be converted into new government housing (replacement of existing stock and creating new stock) and commercial real estate – which is to be sold to recover the overall cost of the project. Considering all the questions that have been raised about the projects recently, we wonder why it is touted as a ‘model’ project for Smart Cities all over the country?

With respect to a model redevelopment project, government projects are in any case something of a cop-out to all the complexities of land ownership, and of convincing multiple users and owners of the value of the project. In these projects, the government owns all the land, and it is also the custodian of the city master plan and is responsible for giving all the planning permissions and environmental clearances involved. The contract for project development was awarded to a government agency, without any form of public competition, and on conditions that are described on the contract document in the broadest possible terms. And even then, is it worthwhile to redevelop several hundred acres of prime urban land (and that too with a rich green cover of old trees that will be lost) with the sole purpose of creating some 7,000 additional units of housing for government employees?

In strictly legal terms, the government is free to do this, without even a public consultation, if it could comply with its own environmental and planning conditions (which we now know have been blatantly flouted). But is this a legitimate way to dispose off public resources? What would be the appropriate norms for establishing public purpose, transparency, accountability and best value for the dealing of government land? The government’s power to deal with land in high-handed ways has been called into question by protest movements time and again – but all too often these are battles of rural and poor people, far removed from city imaginations. The emergence of a distinctly urban dimension to similar questions underscores the need for much greater public engagement with the government’s handling of its power in relation to land.’

A longer article co-authored by Mukta Naik and Arkaja Singh in ‘ThePrint’ can be accessed here.

The first edition of CPR Views can be accessed here.