By Arpita Joshi
When Vijay Dhasmana, rewilder and forest gardener, made his first visit to the abandoned quartzite mine site that was later to become Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram, he noted that the spread of 380 acres “was a barren wasteland full of invasive species (…). I think there were two Peepal trees that I remember. That’s all that was there in that landscape”. Such were the humble beginnings of an incredible journey of returning a forest to the city.
The urgent need for eco-system restoration in cities
Gurugram, formerly called Gurgaon, is known for being a financial and information technology hub and often called the Millennium City. While it began its journey of expansion as a city with the establishment of factories in the 80s, it was in the post-liberalisation 90s that the city grew exponentially and began its rapid ascent to becoming a densely built-up city of approx. 16 lakh people known for its high rises. More recently, it has been in the news for high air pollution and regular flooding, consistently showing up among the 30 most polluted cities in the world since the last few years. Yet even as it struggles with pollution, the 2021 State of Forest Report released by the Forest Survey of India showed that within Haryana, the loss of forest cover has been the highest in Gurugram district.
“What is quality of life? Quality of water, quality of food, quality of education, entertainment and air?”, asks Vijay, “When we look at urbanisation, the right kind of urbanisation should be with the objective that we want to give quality of life to people. Unfortunately, the whole momentum of urbanisation has been that it is devoid of quality of life.” In the last decade research has been overwhelmingly showcasing the multi-layered advantages of integrating green spaces into urban regions. Having access to a natural environment can positively affect human health and well-being as such spaces not only offer opportunities for physical activity, social contact and stress reduction – improving an individual’s health; but also perform important eco-system services such as improving water, air and soil quality alongside moderating temperature – making the region more conducive to collective longterm well-being.
Emphasising particularly the positive effects on children, Vijay adds, “There are enough studies now, which tell us that if you have a connection to the wild, if children are looking at birds, even adults are looking at birds – there is some sense of well-being. (…) I have done enough walks with children to see how a child’s eyes light up when they look at a bagworm moth cocoon. They look at the sticks all woven together and they ask what is it?” A study on children and adolescents undertaken in 2019 did indeed confirm this. It concluded, ‘Stronger association between cumulated green space and risk during childhood constitutes evidence that prolonged presence of green space is important. Our findings affirm that integrating natural environments into urban planning is a promising approach to improve mental health and reduce the rising global burden of psychiatric disorders.’
Beleaguered and overwhelmed, Gurugram is far from being the only Indian city to make to lists which point to them being under severe resource strain and poor management. “Look at Delhi, look at the whole larger NCR region. It’s one of the most polluted regions in the world. So where else would you need to do rewilding?”, asks Vijay, “These are the spaces which are most challenged! (…) it is important for us to understand that without forests we don’t exist.”
The first steps for the Aravali Biodiversity Park project were taken in 2011 by a citizens group called ‘I am Gurgaon’, led by three women Latika Thukral, Swanzal Kak Kapoor and Ambika Agarwal. The vision then was to plant a million trees and revive the region as a green zone. Vijay, who joined the team on the insistence of his friend Pradip Krishen, the well-known environmentalist, immediately noted that the tree saplings that were delivered for planting were non-native species i.e. they were not part of the natural biodiversity of the Aravalli forests which had once extended to this region. This lead to a re-negotiation of the vision of the project, a broadening and deepening of it from a planting to a rewilding project.
‘Rewilding to me is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way’, writes George Monbiot in his 2012 book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, ‘It involves reintroducing absent plants and animals, pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back.’ This was the approach Vijay suggested to the group. Rewilding the mining site would mean bringing back the building blocks of the Aravalli forests that were once endemic to the region and then trust nature to take over and give direction to the emerging forest. As Monbiot explains, rewilding has no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem looks like: ‘The ecosystems that will emerge, in our changed climates, on our depleted soils, will not be the same as those prevailing in the past. The way they evolve cannot be predicted, which is one of the reasons why this project enthralls. While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.’
Yet the immediate challenge the group was faced with was that the trees and plants that were native to the Aravalli forests were not easily available or grown in large enough numbers to be used for the rewilding of the site. Native plants are preferable to non-native/invasive species because they have evolved in the region through thousands of years and built a complex sustaining eco-system through interconnections with the soil and the fauna. Vijay adds, “When you look at a landscape which is wild there is so much happening, there is so much drama happening, when it is in flower, you have bees and insects and birds which are pollinating it, fertilizing it, then the fruit forms.” This is not the case with non-native or alien species and hence they can disrupt natural communities and ecological processes.
Vijay and his team took on the task of visiting existing and conserved areas of the Aravali forests – studying them, collecting seeds and then establishing the nursery for building the base for the forest. This forest nursery was vital to rebuilding and restoring the Aravali eco-system.
Reconnecting with and conserving the wild
What was also important to the core group behind the project was that this was not just about returning the land to the forests, it was also to be a project that would return the forest to the city and its people. Hence, as Vijay explains, “We created a vision for this place – a place that resonates with the city, a place that connects with the people, a place that is a ground recharge place, a place that’s a research place for biodiversity and flora.” This meant the active involvement of Gurugram residents in the process of restoration. Through the years, the planting process involved thousands of citizens be it school children, corporate employees and others – all volunteered and supported the public park becoming active and engaged stakeholders. At any point that this vision of a rewilded forest space has come under threat by other projects such as the passage of a highway through the park, these citizens have banded together to protect and conserve this space.
“I often say that a wild space cannot be saved if humans don’t react or interact creatively with that wild space”, Vijay mentions. As evidenced in ABP, the involvement of residents has meant its prolonged survival in a cityscape where land is constantly being seized for commercial and infrastructure ventures. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, ‘Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.’
In the short span of 10 years the Aravali Biodiversity Park is already living up to its name. It is now flourishing verdant home to more than 200 species of birds, 8 species of amphibians and 250 to 300 species of plants – an awe-inspiring transformation of a landscape that was pitted and exploited for its resources, a barren wasteland just a decade back.
Building resilient cities
To launch the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, UNEP released a report entitled Becoming #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem Restoration for People, Nature and Climate. The report points out how ‘Over-exploitation of natural resources is embedded in economies and governance systems, and the resulting degradation is undermining hard-won development gains and threatening the well-being of future generations’. It goes on to synthesize ‘evidence of the state of degradation of the world’s ecosystems and details the economic, environmental and social rewards that restoration can bring’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also joined hands in supporting the campaign seeking ‘to strengthen cross-sectoral collaboration and engagement at the human, animal, plant and ecosystem interface, also known as One Health’. Their news release outlined how ‘ecosystem restoration can significantly contribute to supporting health and well-being by helping to regulate infectious diseases, supporting food and nutrition security, and contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation’ alongside ‘reducing the risk of disasters, while supporting livelihoods and healthy societies’.
Many of these hard won rewards can be evidenced at the transformed Aravali Biodiversity Park.
Projections say that by the year 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities. It is expected that India, China and Nigeria will account for 35 per cent of this projected growth of the world’s urban population with India expecting to add a whopping 416 million urban dwellers to its cities. If our cities have to be prepared and actively respond to the growing climate crisis and undertake the burden of greater numbers in the days ahead – they need to dramatically reconsider urban design and planning. The ask of the #GenerationRestoration campaign is that countries need to deliver on their existing commitments to restore 1 billion hectares of degraded land alongside making commitments towards marine and coastal areas. This should include restoration and regeneration of land and water bodies within cities where large populations are concentrated. As Vijay points out, “There is no shortcut. We will have to integrate the wild into the city.”
The Aravalli Biodiversity Park is an example of how degraded environments within Indian cities can be rejuvenated and restored and how the existence of forests and the wild within cities can make cities more resilient. In his documentary on the climate crisis, A Life On Our Planet, David Attenborough makes a impassioned plea, “To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world!” It is a call to action that we ignore at our own peril.
Arpita Joshi is the co-founder and co-host of the podcast The Curio-city Collective (TCC), a non-profit space that explores how we can help build a new imagination of Indian cities geared towards the well-being of individuals, collectives and eco-systems. TCC can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org