Is planting saplings a solution to the felling of trees?

City clusters are economic growth engines. In India, the world’s fastest growing economy, the urban population (nearly 32%) contributes over 60% to the GDP and is projected to contribute around 75% in the next few years. Globally too, megacities (a megacity contains more than 10 million inhabitants) have played a significant role in the economic growth of nations. More than 12% of global city dwellers lived in the 28 megacities in 2014, of which Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai were among the biggest. Delhi is projected to become the most populous city in the world by 2028, according to the United Nations.

Invest in urban infrastructure

With the inevitability of migration to urban areas, the share of agriculture and allied services in GDP has shrunk to around 15% even as the sector continues to engage around 70% of our working age population. This has led to subsistence living and distress in rural India. Thus, rural India cannot provide sustainable livelihood to the youth. On the contrary, the GDP contribution of megacities and metropolitan regions is disproportionately high. With large-scale migration to the cities, we must focus on making our cities economically viable and environmentally sustainable so that they remain economic growth engines that provide employment. Investing in our urban infrastructure will lead to enhanced economic activity and result in large-scale employment generation and an improved quality of life. This is a much-desired socioeconomic outcome in a young nation where the majority of urban migrants are youth who are either unemployed or underemployed.

But is it possible to create large-scale urban infrastructure to support the burgeoning urban population and provide high economic growth while ensuring environmental sustainability?

This question has always bothered urban planners and administrators. And more often than not, environment has been the casualty. The high economic growth and prosperity of China came at a huge environmental cost, which the country is trying to address now. In Indian cities, there is lack of basic infrastructure and a deteriorating quality of life. This is reflected in the fact that nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in Indi. Delhi is among them.

Least harm to the environment

It is not an easy task but we have to work hard to ensure that our urban infrastructure causes least harm to the environment and has a net positive impact on our quality of life. Whether it is metros or elevated corridors, a net environment impact assessment must be conducted to justify the felling of trees and harm to water bodies. While the immediate direct environmental impact of cutting trees is obvious, there is a need to inform the stakeholders about the long-term positive impact of these urban infrastructure projects to justify their necessity. Environmental pollution caused by daily hour-long traffic jams on a 10-km stretch will do more harm to the environment and to people’s health than felling 1,000 trees to build a metro line or an elevated corridor. This data needs to be compiled and shared on public forums to educate people.

Care must be taken to avoid any harm to the environment. This can be done by going either underground or elevated. Large-scale compensatory afforestation should be provided in the immediate vicinity, to the extent possible. But not creating essential urban infrastructure will only lead to a deteriorating quality of life. The line between development and environment is a fine one. We must tread it carefully.

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