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The Cartography Of An Anti-National Crime Just Outside JNU Walls

02/03/2016 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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TAUSEEF MUSTAFA via Getty Images
Indian labourers works on the construction site of a shopping mall in the Vasant Kunj District of New Delhi, 11 August 2007, days before celebrations of the 60th anniversary of independence from Britain. Though India has shown a remarkable growth in its economy with cities and towns witnessing a construction boom, large sections of people mainly from rural India continue to live under the poverty line. Each labourer at the site earns between Indian Rupees 60 to 100 a day (USD 1.48 to 2.22). AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Right, so JNU has been designated as the site of anti-national activity. People have gathered outside the campus gates decrying the anti-national crimes being committed from within. The national imagination has run riot about the depraved and debauched nature of these wrongdoings: 3000 condoms, 2000 alcohol bottles, 500 anti-abortion injections and 10,000 cigarettes daily is the current count of anti-national crimes committed every day. The lush 4sq km campus in South Delhi is now the most unpatriotic and disloyal patch of land in the country.

The implicit assumption is that whatever happens outside the boundaries of the campus is by definition 'national', as exemplified by sections of the media, Delhi police and lawyers acting as correctives to the 'anti-national' subversives.

By restricting the discourse on nationalism geographically (inside JNU) and ideologically (patriotism vs. sedition) we run the risk of ignoring a wide range of impropriety outside...

Let us now shift our nationalistic gaze outside the campus. Over the Western boundary wall of JNU lie the upmarket Vasant Vihar and the more humble Vasant Kunj residential localities. The whole area lies on the Delhi ridge, the tail-end of the 1.5 billion-year-old, 800km-long Aravalli mountain range that stretches from Rajasthan to Delhi. It enters the national capital from the southwest and continues 40km north through the city to a series of low-lying hills covered with deciduous scrub forest, known as the Delhi ridge forest.

The part of the forest closest to JNU is the Vasant Kunj ridge, a 650-acre patch of woodland that has been the site of a dispute involving questions of development, environment and legality. Why is this relevant for the current discourse on nationalism? By restricting the discourse on nationalism geographically (inside JNU) and ideologically (patriotism vs. sedition) we run the risk of ignoring a wide range of impropriety in the rest of the city, in this case just outside the university walls.

A recent book by Vikram Soni sheds more light on the "Vasant Kunj ridge case". In Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet, Soni, a physicist turned conservationist, writes that in the 1990s the Delhi Development Authority floated a proposal to develop 13 luxury hotels on 315 hectares of forest land adjoining JNU. Soni was part of a coalition of citizens' groups waging a legal battle to protect this forested tract.

The report of a Supreme Court-appointed body declared that the entire area was a part of the ridge and therefore protected under the Delhi master plan. The Forest Department further indicated that since it was a dry thorn forest no non-forest activity would be allowed. The luxury hotels project was shelved.

In 2003, the DDA once again announced a proposal to develop 25 acres of ridge forest land into swanky malls and offices. A legal battle ensued in which an independent environmental body of the state government directed the malls to stop construction. In 2006 the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted a report to the Supreme Court in which it said that the "DDA should have exercised adequate environmental precaution" and that "There is no evidence that the environmental impact of the malls was assessed beforehand."

"Artful lawyers" had a hand in prising out the legal grey areas which ensured the construction of malls, offices and a hotel despite environmental laws.

The report's conclusion surprisingly stated that: "In hindsight, it is evident that the location of large commercial complexes in this area was environmentally unsound. Now many proponents have constructed very substantially and, really speaking, awarding clearances even with conditions is largely a compromise. Only damage control is possible at this stage."

Soni writes that the Supreme Court accepted the report and gave permission to build on this protected land. And that is how the Emporio, Promenade and Ambience super-luxury malls came to be built in South Delhi, across the road from JNU and with the ridge forest behind them as a backdrop.

In the Vasant Kunj ridge forest case, Soni writes that "artful lawyers" had a hand in prising out the legal grey areas which ensured the construction of malls, offices and a hotel despite environmental laws.

And what have the city and citizens of Delhi lost in the process? An article in Seminar says:

"The ridge forest acts like a green lung, lowers the ambient temperature and acts as a noise buffer, besides protecting the city from desert sands blowing in from Rajasthan (south of Delhi). Most importantly, for an increasingly water scarce city, the ridge forest and the river Yamuna once formed a network of water channels, though most of them have been lost or highly fragmented."

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