By Saurabh Chowdhury
Over time, urban spaces have been characterized by their infrastructure. Better the infrastructure better is the city. And with the focus being so much on infrastructure, nature has taken a back seat. Urban dwellers have become dissociated with nature, and the common man’s environmentalism seems to have replaced knowledge and understanding of nature. My recent visit to the newly acquired campus site of Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) at Rohini made me realize the actual loss of natural vegetation that cities have become testimony to. During my visit, I also got a glimpse of a phenomenon that I call the common man’s ‘forest’, and the following piece is an attempt to try and understand what it really means in the urban context.
AUD had recently been allotted nearly 17 Acres of land for its new campus in north Delhi’s Rohini. Rohini is a well planned residential colony spread across 4,979 Acres, and with a population of about 8.5 lakh. The campus site is right in the middle of this area. The land was left vacant for a long time before the varsity was awarded the land by the Delhi Government. The site is divided into two parts and both the parts have some form of vegetation growing in them. On one part, the vegetation is dense and it is impossible to walk through, while the other part has relatively sparse vegetation. One of the reasons that I could think of that explains the processes behind such an uneven distribution of vegetation was the fact that, the southern part is frequently used by local people residing in the adjoining J. J. Colony. The northern part has relatively limited human use, and on close observation, it was found that the vegetation comprises of Prosopis juliflora – an invasive tree species.
When a patch of land in the middle of a densely populated human settlement is left unused, it generally has its own natural and ecological consequences. The most common being the threat of being invaded by alien plant species. A common phenomenon in urban spaces, biological invasion is a major concern for the biodiversity of India as well as the rest of the globe. Invasive species alter the species composition of an area by suppressing the growth of native species. Being r-selected (Rejmánek & Richardson, 1996), one of the defining characteristics of such species is that they are adept to achieving rapid spread and growth under a wide range of ecological conditions. With no natural predators to keep a check on their growth, except for the people who harvest the species for timber and fuel wood, availability of appropriate resources and lack of constant disturbances (anthropogenic or otherwise) facilitate the growth of invasive species population. This to me was the case in the northern part of the campus site. To locals, the northern part is a dense jungle. For them, it resembles a forest, and subsequently informs their imagination of natural vegetation. So is also the case with many urban dwellers.
Another possible reason explaining the observed pattern might be the difference in physical conditions, i.e. the resources that are available. But with just a 13.5 meter wide road separating the two sites, it is highly unlikely that natural conditions such as the quality of soil, availability of moisture, and the proportion of inorganic elements present in the soil of the two sites will be any different from each other. If this is indeed the case, anthropogenic disturbance and human use of the patches is seemingly the only factor that can explain the difference in vegetation pattern. It then becomes interesting to gauge the role of anthropogenic disturbance in altering the ecology of a patch.
In spaces filled with cobwebs of concrete infrastructure, it becomes difficult to imagine anything like a natural forest. In such circumstances, any form of vegetation becomes a source of experiencing nature, and consequently invokes some form of environmentalism. As a result, a patch invaded by Prosopis juliflora is referred to as a ‘forest’. This form of environmentalism fails to locate the contrasting difference between a patch invaded by an invasive species and a similar patch just across the road that is almost barren. Both become a part of the daily lives of people. The contrast does not strike the conscience. People may be least concerned about the nature around them, and hence, rather than learning about it, they work their way around and use whatever is present to their best advantage. Such is the level of dissociation with nature that urban dwellers face today. Delhi boasts of having a green cover of around 20% of its total area (Janwalkar, 2015) – the highest among the big four metropolitans in the country – without realizing that most of it is due to the expansion of invasive species. Till the time it is green, the details do not matter. Even if a patch is getting degraded, it does not matter, because after a point people don’t care enough to understand the situation at hand. The common man’s environmentalism turns blind after a certain extent.
Saurabh Chowdhury is a recent graduate from the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). He is currently working as a Research Assistant in the environmental management committee of AUD.
Janwalkar, M. (2015, November 1). PWD to environment ministry: 33 pc green cover in the capital unachievable. The Indian Express .
Rejmánek, M., & Richardson, D. M. (1996). What Attributes Make Some Plant Species More Invasive? Ecology, Vol. 77(6) , 1655-1661.