After-effects of a Thousand Feet

Vipin Kumar

The mineral and nutrient-rich uppermost layer of the earth’s crust that supports almost all lifeforms in the terrestrial environment is known as soil. It is formed by the slow and continuous weathering of rocks by various physical (thunderstorm & cracks by water freeze), chemical (atmospheric chemicals) and biological (plants & microbial growth) factors. The soil-borne biota and plants optimize the conditions of the soil and make it livable. In addition to providing anchorage, nutrients, air, and water, soils also provide habitat to microfauna that helps in decomposition and nutrient recycling in the terrestrial ecosystem. Soil organic matter, along with hygroscopic water, provides optimum conditions for the growth of plant roots.

However, soil compaction leads to a loss in soil structure, porosity, water retention capacity, permeability, and aeration thereby adversely affecting the growth of soil microfauna and plant roots. Numerous factors are responsible for the compaction of the soil. While the use of motorized vehicles in fields act as an external factor, depletion of groundwater is an internal factor which is responsible for soil compaction, and if ignored for a long time, may lead to the loss of soil fertility (Boels et al., 1982). Anthropogenic activities like construction, motor driving, annual mega-events or festivals, and gatherings of various socio-political groups in an around Delhi (like those held in Majlis Park Metro Station and Dheerpur) have transformed fertile lands into semi-paved surfaces. If allowed to continue for a longer time, these anthropogenic activities may affect surrounding protected areas.

In Dheerpur, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country descend upon the area and manually clean the entire area in preparation for annual mass gatherings and ceremonies. It is fascinating to observe how each and every single plant is plucked with bare hands, and the uneven surface beaten and compressed in order to create seating space for the lakhs who throng to these areas. Thick patches of Phragmites karka grass – a perennial herbaceous grass – have been removed in Dheerpur. Furthermore, discharge of untreated wastewater from the Dheerpur area into the nearby Shahalam drain that directly leads to the Yamuna River makes the river water further polluted. In order to create space for seating, water from the many small wetlands that are located in the area is pumped out – an action which is definitely going to threaten the biodiversity of the area and its environs. Post-event, huge stockpiles of solid waste pose another threat to the environment. Ideally, solid waste has to be transferred from the gathering site to the designated landfill site. However, in order to avoid incurring additional expenses, the waste is either left abandoned or is burnt accidentally/deliberately.

Figure 1 Clockwise from Top Left: Clearing Vegetation inside the DWP for an Annual Mass Gathering; Workers Compacting the Soil to Create Seating Space; Playing Football, Cricket and other Physical Activities are also known to Compress the Soil; Soil Compaction Affects the Growth of Soil Microfauna and Plant Roots

In addition to compression of the soil by deliberate human action, the problem of soil compaction is compounded when people use the area for football, cricket and other forms of physical activity. This reduces the chances of germination of buried or dormant rhizomes and air driven seeds and propagules of plants. It has been observed that, in the nearby Dheerpur Wetland Park, certain biological activities have loosened up the soil, allowing the regrowth of Phragmites karka in the site that is under Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). However, adjacent to the AUD area, towards Nirankari Colony, not even a single blade of grass can be observed.

In cities like Delhi where land prices are very high, it is very difficult to find space for recreational activities or for the organizing of mega-events. While government authorities provide land to event organizers, ignorance of harmful effects on the ecosystem, non-compliance with laws and regulations, and in some cases, deliberate use, leads to the occupation of entire areas or large swathes of land irrespective of whether they are a green space or a wetland ecosystem.  Thus, while issuing land for public events, the administration, policy makers, institutions and other stakeholders should emphasize the zonation of protected areas.

References

  • 13-15 October 1980. CEC sponsored Land Use Seminar on “Soil Degradation”, Wageningen, Netherlands (Boels et al., 1982).

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