Grabbing land for green cover

Published: Friday 30 September 1994

"Green cover" -- a near-generic, near-pacifist environmental term today -- was coined at a time of bitter war, by Allied troops hiding from Japanese bombing runs in Malaya's forests in World War II. In the next great war, the Vietnam war, ironically, green cover was home to the Vietcong and a threat to the American troops, who Agent Orange-d the country. Thereafter, the progress of development has seen to the defoliation of the world's land to such an extent that war has come into something so benign as environmentalism. "Green cover" is now a war cry, as much as it was before, but with a meaning reversed. .

Unfortunately, the Indian government, particularly, still sees (when it does) environmentalism in the one camp and people in the other, much as if doing repairs to one will require walking over the other. So this war has its "collateral damage": people steaming, often uprooted, their right to their land usurped in the cause of green polity. .

And green polity in India extends rather largely to bunging saplings into unprepared ground -- planting them in their millions, year in year out. Watering can and trowel are second only to white khadi as motifs for upcoming Indian politicians. .

Which is why the roundtable trowelising that takes place in the quarters where polity is sacrosanct, in bureaucrats' offices, can often be a socially disruptive thing -- particularly when people affected by the government takeover of ground for planting saplings see no direct benefit to themselves. .

This is what is happening today in Delhi -- still, despite the huge pillow of pollution settling on its face, the greenest capital in the world. Launched with much self-congratulation, the Delhi state government's decision to stick over 5 million trees into 2,200 ha throughout the city by mid-1995 is aimed at increasing the Capital's green cover and checking pollution. .

Unfortunately for the government, those who hold traditional rights over the land in question have uses for it other than planting saplings: grazing, cattle pens, growing crops, among others, and Delhi's pollution -- which is perceived as government-abetted -- can go hang. There is also some truth to the belief that if the government's afforestation drive had had some sincerity in it, Delhi would have been a forest zone by now. Statistics are routinely fudged; and often land acquired by the government finds its way into the coffers of land sharks and developers. .

It's not a pretty picture. A green drive is fine, even frequently necessary. But at what human cost? With so many holes in the fencing, the government's cover is, as it were, blown.

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