It all started with pitching a tent!
According to objectives of the Dheerpur Wetland Park (DWP) project, massive on-site plantation was to be carried out in the monsoon of 2016. However, when the first rains of the season did arrive, we were slightly unprepared for plantation. To begin with, we did not have a field station. One of my first tasks when I joined the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES) a few months ago, therefore, was to help establish a temporary field station. Setting up a field station at the upcoming DWP was important as it gave the project some visibility. And so, my work began.
Every nook and corner of specialized goods markets such as Pulbangash, Azadpur, Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazar were explored (literally!) to arrange a whole lot of equipment and on-site logistics. These markets can easily boast of having the narrowest streets in the world, with each street specializing in a particular commodity. Shopkeepers here are capable of confidently displaying a 12×12 feet tent in a 6×6 feet room. Life in general in these markets is extremely fast yet surprisingly efficient. One must see it to believe it. Although a tad bit too late, we somehow managed to arrange the required equipment to set up a temporary field station at the DWP site. Once that was done, we were able to procure saplings and seedlings from in and around Delhi, following which plantation activities began in full swing.
The first plantation drive was conducted in the last week of July when the survival of saplings was almost entirely dependent on the monsoon. In the initial phase of plantation, perennial species such as Dendrocalamus strictus, Bambusa bamboo, Polyalthia longifolia, Bauhinia variegate, Mimusops elengi and Terminalia arjuna were planted. Some of the herbaceous species introduced in this phase were Chrysopogon fulvus, Cenchrus ciliaris, Phragmites karka and Panicum maximum. A drilling machine affixed to a tractor was used to dig several hundred pits in a matter of few minutes – something that made me realize how technology and machines can facilitate large scale plantation, resulting in the rapid and drastic transformation of a landscape. Yet, one cannot undermine the role of technology in the implementation of any project of this nature in the city. We were also able to carry out minor dredging and earthmoving work. On dredging a small portion of the wetland, groundwater began to surface within a depth of about 3-4 feet.
Having got the ball rolling on-site, we felt we were in a comfortable position. Overseeing day-to-day activities at the site did not seem too great a challenge. However, we soon realized that there was so much more happening than met the eye. To put things in perspective, the wetland site serves as space where several people accrue various kinds of benefits. For instance, there are farmers from neighbouring states working as labourers in the fields, there are joggers, school/college bunkers, professional and non-professional athletes, car-driving learners, cart-pullers, NTFP collectors, daily trespassers, and so on, all of who use the wetland site. While the use of the wetland by these small players may not pose a real threat, in the long run, the greatest challenge came out to be from those local farmers who claim formal and informal rights of ownership over the land. And, their delusionary positions over land rights complicate it further under a bureaucratic scenario.
This gridlock situation in such a small space is typical of most modern cities and highlights how the sedentary style of living give exclusive ‘rights’ to certain people to exploit land-based on some manuscript pieces of paper. According to legal documents of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), compensation has been paid in full to farmers. Yet, there are few farmers who find it difficult not to call it ‘their’ land, and continue to request access to the land informally at the commencement of each growing season. These same people including the farmers often attempt to bypass barricades and view university guards as a hindrance to their free passage and their daily benefits from the land. Whereas, Joggers and professional athletes, on the other hand, look at on-site activities as exciting, in the hope that one day they would have access to vast green spaces for their practice sessions. With multiple stakeholders at the scene, the current situation seems obscure.
Dove (1992) diagnoses how meaning changes with the change in the use of the landscape.
“Whereas extensive, long-cycle use of the land obliged society to view agriculture and civilization within the bounds of nature, intensive, short-cycle uses do not. Whereas society once depended upon the natural dynamics of vegetative succession to restore the productivity of the land during fallow periods, society now views these dynamics as a threat.”
Dove (1992, p.242)
Doves statement is apt to the current scenario at the DWP where farmers, regardless of whether they have got compensation or not, are either confused or ignorant of the ecological values of the wetland park. Since the land is facilitating crop production, farmers are of the view that ecological processes are already actively taking place. This view, in my opinion, stems from a problematic understanding of the very fundamental concept of ‘green’; a view that is politically modified to suit ones’ requirements. The Dheerpur wetland is a former floodplain of the river Yamuna, and floodplains are known to be extremely conducive to agriculture, allowing farmers to grow crops at very low costs. However, detrimental practices such as the use of sewage water from the nearby Gandhi Vihar Colony, and the flattening of the land for the annual international Nirankari samagam may completely change the soil composition and other hydrological patterns of the landscape. For decades, these factors have been largely ignored for political and profit-making motives of a handful of individuals.
Recently we had hired two gardeners to help us maintain our on-site nursery and survival of the planted saplings. The two men were previously working as daily-wage labourers in the nearby agricultural fields. Noticing this, other local farmers in the area also started aggressively contesting for such positions. On one instance, a woman came to the field station and started shouting, “Why are you hiring ‘outsiders’ when ‘real Dheerpur locals’ are sleeping without food?” A few days later, a man engaging in friendly conversation with me, talked about his plans for setting up shops in the vicinity of the DWP, besides investing in real estate. Clearly, the man was aware of the fact that the upcoming DWP would add ecological and aesthetic value to the landscape, with the possibility of property prices in the surrounding residential colonies of Gandhi Vihar and Mukherjee Nagar skyrocketing as a result. I won’t be surprised to know that real estate dealers have now constantly started visiting the park for morning and evening walks. In general, as project activities continue, people from the neighbouring areas are visiting the wetland site, keeping a keen eye on day-to-day progress.
In the post-monsoon season, regular water supply for saplings has so far been quite challenging. Firstly, without any electricity, borewell/tubewell facilities are unavailable, making it difficult for us to provide saplings with a sustained supply of water. At present, we are having to resort to informal mechanisms of obtaining water for the survival of our saplings. Secondly, saplings planted at the site require around the clock protection from intruders (both man and beast). The people coming to the area may not be aware of the nitty-gritty of the process of ecological restoration, and their mischievous actions are often a hindrance to the project. Also, it is important to bear in mind that repair and replacement costs a lot of time and money, especially when the monsoon season is available only once a year. Looking at all these dynamics, it is interesting to comprehensively understand how a project goes to the field, how the project actions act, and how reactions come out. These reactions give some feedback and these known and unknown feedbacks in the regenerated ecosystem can be important indicators for improvised action on the ground. ‘Unknown’ determinants are still contributing to reshaping the design of the project, and the CUES team is continuously working on knowing the ‘unknown’ and treating the ‘known’. We look forward to further official and unofficial support on-field and off-field; we are also definitely trying to sustain the saplings for further . . . much-awaited rains!