S02E08: Rewilding the city

In conversation with Vijay Dhasmana

Or listen to it here:


Vijay: Have I lost you?
Deepika: No, no I’m here, I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Vijay: Have I lost you?

Deepika: No, no I can hear you. It got stuck for a minute, but I could hear you.
Vijay: Okay? Okay.

Deepika: This is what life sounds like when trying to have a conversation on zoom in two different cities on what I guess was a really bad internet day?

Arpita: It has been rather challenging trying to do these conversations on zoom – so was there a reason for the bad internet or was it just one of those days?

Deepika: Well that and i guess just life – cause there was a merry cocktail of traffic, pressure cookers and what not – yet the show must go on and Vijay was wonderful and kind and we ploughed through and forgot about the internet after a point because the conversation was so interesting!

Arpita: Great, so let’s begin!

Vijay: Hi I am Vijay Dhasmana and I’ve given myself a fancy name. I call myself a rewilder, somebody who looks at a degraded landscape and tries to rewild it for the wilds, to make it wild, and wilderness for the people and wildlife around. So last 15 years this is what I’ve been doing and I have mainly worked in the Aravalli landscape, Aravalli range, the Aravalli mountain range if you know.

Deepika: This is Vijay maybe under-selling himself a bit. His LinkedIn profile says he’s a forest gardener –

Arpita: Which I guess depending on your world-view and how you define the term isn’t incorrect, I’m sure he would argue for it – I must say what I’m more curious about is how one goes on to become a re-wilder or a forest gardener!

Deepika: I think that story will tell itself as we move forward – Vijay, didn’t begin his working life as a forest gardener, as he explained. He was always interested in conservation but he started as an activist.

Vijay: So I think I started my journey into conservation from being an activist, looking at the conflicts that we have in terms of urbanization and how it is impinging – development and urbanization – impinging on the natural resources, on wildlife, on communities who are living on the fringes. So I realized that being an activist you could do only very little, you could only fight with the system and often it is draining, often it is de-motivating and the results are very little and I’m very fortunate that the struggles that I had been part of, many of them have been very successful but I realize that that as an individual I want to be constructive. I want to play a positive role and that’s how I went to conservation and rewilding specially. I was very fortunate to have been working in this space called rewilding where a land can be rewilded, brought back to its glory.

Arpita: This reminds me of what George Monbiot says in his book Feral, which is also about rewilding. He says how “The environmental movement up till now has necessarily been reactive.” As in it was often responding to actions by other entities such as governments or corporations or even communities because conservation implies the negation of action in a eco-system and letting nature function on its own. And so he goes on to say that where: “We have been clear about what we don’t like (…) we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies.” And to him, rewilding or ecological restoration is ‘a work of hope’ as Vijay also expresses. Though this is not to say restoration is more important than conservation – just that proactive nurturing work like rewilding can balance energies between these two.

Deepika: Yes exactly, and while exploring what he found interesting and nurturing, Vijay has had a chance to move around a fair bit working with movements and projects in Mumbai, Uttarakhand, and Delhi, but the project which has really brought a strong spotlight to his work is the Aravalli Biodiversity Park which he spoke of in detail.

Arpita: But before we get into that, I think it’ll be useful to unpack the concept of rewilding itself.

Vijay: So to understand rewilding I think it’s important to understand what we have, as human beings, done to the planet. And so if you take an example we have created a lot of wasteland in the process of mining, in the process of dumping, in the process of eroding the natural biodiversity, cutting forests, even agriculture. The land we have included in agriculture, many of the lands had become difficult to do agriculture in and now they need rejuvenation of soil and the plant life. So what is rewilding is essentially to bring back the flora, habitat and wildlife into that particular landscape.

Deepika: You know in the documentary ‘A life on our planet’, David Attenborough says how “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we’ve created – we must rewild the world.” And really rewilding projects like the one Vijay’s been a part of and continues to work on are central to helping nature heal.

Arpita: This urgency in Attenborough’s voice was also echoed in the theme of this past year’s World Environment Day which launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (#generationrestoration) with the tagline reimagine, recreate, restore. It highlights both the perilous situation with regard to the climate crisis and other linked issues but also points to the way out of our despairing situation through this process of restoration. And what I found fascinating was that they aren’t just speaking of this with regards to land but also the oceans, other ecosystems and how that is linked up with ending poverty, combating climate change, preventing species extinctions, stopping desertification – there are just so many connections to make there.

Deepika: Absolutely – and I think in my chat with Vijay what came across was the nuance and wisdom that is built into this concept of rewilding as one goes deeper. The very term eco-system restoration seems simple enough on the surface but it contains multitudes really because no two eco-systems are the same, they each have their own unique personality and hence there can be no one simple fix-it solution.

Vijay: Every forest has its unique flora, or habitat so to say. So when you rewild what you try to do is – what is unique to that particular landscape, you recreate that habitat. So in the Aravallis we have about seven eight kinds of forests in different stages of degradation. So we recreate that. So on the hilltops we have different forests, on the slopes we have different forests, in the valleys we have different forests, in the plains we have different forests, in the dry you know sandy, where the sand is moving, we have different forests. So you take all of that information in account and then you do the rewilding projects.

Arpita: So basically when you consider the idea of rewilding a denuded space you first need to understand the eco-system what it had been like when it was flourishing?

Deepika: Yes. In so many ways rewilding is a shift in worldview really – it’s about addressing the man-nature conflict at the heart of which is a certain disregard and disdain for nature. In order to truly change this relationship to one of a partnership, rewilding is asking us to cultivate this quality of listening, of informed action. So Vijay spoke of how he followed the historical and scientific trail of botanists and other specialists who have written about these spaces and began to get a real sense of how the eco-system functioned when it was in its full bloom. He particularly mentioned Champion and Seth, who were pioneers in recognising and classifying forests in India back in the 60s.

Arpita: You know the thing that struck me just now is that we tend to think of the wild as being separate, somehow pristine, untouched, segregated from the spaces we occupy and live in such as our urban cityscapes – and yet you said Vijay’s most prominent project was in Gurgaon – which i am sorry to say is more famous or infamous for being very built up and bare.

Deepika: Yes, that occurred to me too! At the word ‘wild’ one’s brain immediately leaps to a national park or some such space and so I asked him this specific question on how he felt urbanisation interacts with this idea of rewilding.

Vijay: When we look at urbanization, i mean the right urbanization should be with that objective that we want to give quality of life to people. Unfortunately, the whole momentum of urbanization has been that it is devoid of quality of life. What is quality of life, quality of water, quality of food, quality of education, entertainment and air! All that is, you know, it is it is…I’m surprised completely and it goes out of any logic that what we are doing to our urban spaces or even development for that matter is contrary to what it should be. You know look at the Delhi, look at the whole larger NCR region. It’s one of the most polluted regions in the world. Yeah, so where else would you need to do rewilding? You know other than the spaces which are most challenged and these are the spaces which are most challenged!

Deepika: Also he pointed out something I think we all lose sight of in our daily interaction with our cityscapes, that they weren’t always like this. Taking a historical view reminds us that these lands were also once wild and untamed, part of contiguous forests and ecosystems – it is only by long term human intervention that they look and feel quite the way they do. And there was this second thing he said which I really loved. And maybe that’s about extending the idea of rewilding to ourselves.

Vijay: There are enough studies now, which tells us that if you have a connect to the wild, wilderness, you know, if children are looking at birds, even adults are looking at birds – there is some sense of well-being and it happens in terms of connect.

Deepika: At TCC we’ve been sharing a lot of this research on our previous episodes and in our social media spaces. There is, as Vijay says, a growing body of research that points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing.

Vijay: I have done enough walks with children to see that a child… Child’s eye gets all light up when they look at a bagworm moth cocoon and they look at the sticks all woven together and they ask what is it, when you tell them that this is a particular moth,which has made a you know, a shell around itself of the sticks in that plant it is in and it’s going to release itself you know in some time when its mature. It’s so competitive stressful life and the wild spaces and rewilded spaces are very very important for the city, rewilded space also gives an additional benefit that the city comes together and creates that wild space.

Arpita: You know there’s this concept of ‘nature deficit disorder’ that Richard Louv coined which speaks to how increasingly children are spending more time indoors and losing out on the benefits of being outside. In his rather famous book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, Louv points out that the human costs of alienation from nature can include diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses and so much more. And you know thinking about these really makes me appreciate the idea, the potential that a wild space integrated into the urban environment can hold for children. But you know tell me more about the ‘coming together’ bit that he’s speaking of here!

Deepika: Yes, so let’s get into the Aravalli Biodiversity Park project which has been a prominent undertaking of Vijay’s.

Vijay: So I was called up by a friend of mine called Pradip Krishen who has written books on trees. One of them is Trees of Delhi and the Jungle trees of Central India and he called me up and he said that there are that are some passionate people in Gurgaon who want to do some planting work, would you please have a look?

Deepika: This was in 2011 and the group was called ‘Iamgurgaon’ (IAG), a voluntary group founded by 3 women – Latika Thukral, Swanzal Kaak Kapoor and Ambika Agarwal. As a citizens’ initiative they wanted to plant a million trees and create a nature park on an old mining site at the edge of Gurgaon.

Arpita: And what was being mined there?

Deepika: It was a big piece of land about 380 acres – which would be around 292 football fields – that had been mined for quartzite which is basically a decorative stone used as kitchen tops or flooring. The mining though had been stopped a while back and what Vijay was faced with was a barren rather inhospitable piece of land. Which is really a pity because it was once very much contiguous to the Aravalis forest range.

Vijay: I think the first thing when I saw the land, it was a barren wasteland full of invasive species. We call it alien invasive species because they don’t belong to this landscape and something called Mexican Mesquite or Prosopis juliflora, which was brought in by British and it was in the shrub form in this landscape and largely it was open land with gravel all around, there is nothing – a few species of grasses you did find but because there was so much of movement of vehicles and maybe burning so much that there was no large trees in that landscape and what we found I think there were two Peepal trees that I remember, that’s all that was there in that landscape.

Arpita: That sounds heartbreaking – for a forest to have somehow been reduced to that. You’ve shown me the pictures and we’ll put them up on our social media so people can see them.

Deepika: And don’t forget the important point there about invasive species that Vijay makes. An invasive species is an introduced organism that negatively alters its new environment. These species, like the Prosopis that Vijay mentions – they can adversely affect the invaded habitats and bioregions, causing ecological, environmental damage and change.

Vijay: But 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. Then you need another vector which is a bird or an animal or a.. – that will eat that fruit and then take it far apart and then, you know, another plant will happen and there’s drama going on all the time. There is life happening. And I think for me it is much more valuable when we start seeing the whole drama of life happening and unfolding under a tree or a habitat.

Deepika: And this ‘drama’ that Vijay is talking about which is basically a whole lot of flora and fauna working in complex interactive networks of interdependency is possible within an eco-system because of centuries of evolution. The issue with an alien species is that it’s not woven into the fabric of that eco-system. A lot of times not only is it not able to support the local biodiversity, but because it’s alien to the eco-system, it doesn’t have any local bio-control mechanisms that can contain its spread, hence the word ‘invasive’ – it takes over the landscape.

Arpita: So to put that in perspective, not only was the land first shorn of all that was originally part of its Aravali range habitat thanks to the intensive mining operation and ill use, but it had since also grown a second skin of this alien vegetation?

Deepika: Exactly. This was the monumental challenge that was ahead of this team of people when they decided to take up the project. And when Vijay first joined the project, it wasn’t necessarily about rewilding. At that point, it was a project to plant a million trees.

Vijay: So when I came I said have the plants arrived? They said yeah, they have just arrived. When we opened up the truck and looked at the plants and I realized that none of them were native. While we were thinking that native plants would come but none of them were native plants. So that gave me a hint that actually, you know, the journey has to be different and then I had a negotiation with them. I told them that let’s think through this, you know, it’s not about planting, it’s about recreating habitats. It’s about creating a vision for the city and we thought hard about it. 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 and that was the vision that we created.

Deepika: Vijay worked with the group which was its own process really. It involved lots of conversations and even visits to the existing Aravalli forests such as Sariska and slowly and surely they collectively shifted the vision that was to guide the work in the park to accommodate the deeper concept of rewilding, and in some manner returning the land to the forests, and the forests to the city.

Vijay: We said why not turn the tide why not to, you know, make a statement in this 380 acres and give a slogan that we are bringing back the forest into the city. Bringing back the wilderness into the city because it is important for us to understand that without forest we don’t exist.

Arpita: That is quite powerful and I can imagine a challenge in itself. The vision statement means a lot, doesn’t it, in terms of how we begin to understand, assimilate and carry out an idea. But there is still the actual process of carrying it out.

Deepika: Yeah, and that’s where we arrive at the ‘coming together’ bit you were asking me about earlier you know. So, once they had this vision, it was on to the execution of actually putting together the project.

Vijay: I remember my colleagues Latika, Preeti, Swanzal telling me that they had to get money from their family and friends to support the plantation in the park, because nobody wants to put in their money to something that they are not sure of. So first year, it goes like this, second year onwards, you know, people started coming in, corporates started coming in, and they are the ones who supported the plantation drives in the park.

Deepika: And from Vijay’s description – it felt like everyone from the municipality to the local school kids were involved in this!

Vijay: In the case of Aravalli Biodiversity Park there were 70 schools who came together. There are thousands of citizens who came together and the corporates, 70 plus corporates who came together in making this park.

Deepika: The core group tried to involve as many people and groups as possible with the hope of actively creating a sense of being a stakeholder in the creation of this park.

Vijay: Children, they came because we wanted them to be the custodian of this place. To be a participant in this whole movement of creating wild, so children were essential in this whole journey. And the corporates because they were willing to send their volunteers and most of them were young people, and it gave us immense opportunity to talk to them, and explain to them what are Aravallis, how old they are, why this kind of forest exist. Today, we don’t have to advertise. People just come in and call you every year that we want to do a plantation drive – can we help, can we come, we are ready put it money, etc. There is definitely an opportunity when you are rewilding something you can get the whole city around it to rewild the space together and that I find is the most beautiful part of the work that I have done so far. It’s not a private small entity or you know something that that’s exclusive for people. It’s a public park. It’s for people, for people to cherish and connect to it.

Arpita: I love that they gave the process just as much thought as the idea of the park itself! Imagine the fondness and sense of ownership and belonging it creates for kids who might have planted trees there, I mean I can just hear them say, “let me show you ‘my’ tree”, which immediately changes one’s relationship with a public space.

Deepika: Definitely, I used to live in that part of the city when I was growing up and remember the barren, caved in cliffs from the mining that used to be done there. And when I visited the park a few years ago, was struck by the transformation its undergone. But there was more to the process than just getting people together.

Vijay: Of course, it was only two months in the year that all this will happen – rest of the year it was slog. You have to take care of the plants, see to it that the people who are taking care of the plants have been taken care of and so on and so forth.

Deepika: The ‘what to, how to plant’ bit was actually a major part of the process conundrum. Our long preoccupation with exotic flowering trees and economically viable species led to a major challenge.

Vijay: Look at the airport, Delhi airport or Mumbai airport for that matter what have you done? You have put in completely disjointed plants, which have no relationship, you know, and when you put a wild species you are creating relationship, you’re creating networks of different organisms together and that relationship enhances the whole habitat together.

Deepika: This preoccupation with exotic ornamental trees in cities, often trees plucked out of their native landscapes, meant that when faced with the challenge of restoring a forest landscape, nurseries had a limited palette to offer in terms of tree saplings for this project – they just did not have the tree saplings that were relevant to this eco-system.

Vijay: We are very lazy. We don’t look at the wild. We don’t appreciate the wild except for the tigers. We don’t look at, you know the wild from that perspective and there is a lot that we can bring to our urban spaces from the wild. Like somebody has calculated, of the 2,000 odd species of trees that we have in this country, I think we use less than a hundred species. So just imagine there is so much scope for us to use from the palette of plants that we have, and trees, I’m just talking about trees. We are not talking about climbers, shrubs and others.

Arpita: So how did they manage to make the shift when there were no saplings available?

Deepika: So to make their vision a reality, Vijay had to don the hat of a seed collector! He and his team roamed the Aravalis and collected seeds for the nursery that they had to build from scratch. He also meticulously noted how they worked in tandem with each other and within which micro-habitats.

Arpita: I’m now totally beginning to see what he means by his designation as a forest gardener!

Deepika: Quite – In an article in Conservation India, he wrote on how he was absolutely determined to learn as much as he could by observation and explains how he noted that different tree types belonged on different parts of the landscape. For example, babool only grows only where the soil is deep and of good quality, with water close to the surface and Dhau on steep rocky slopes. He wrote that “The idea was not to make this park into a dense woodland but to create diverse habitats, including grasslands that would support varied forms of life, typical of northern Aravalli.”

Arpita: Can’t imagine that it was easy at all but it sounds so worth it really.

Deepika: Truly, because as the before-after pictures show us, the coming together of hands and hearts of so many over the years has managed to transform the once barren land into a wild forest again.

Vijay: you know, it was a mined area and you could see crushers, you know stone crushers. It has transformed into a habitat where you get more than 200 species of birds, you have eight species of amphibians, which is rare in a particular spot. You have snakes of all kinds that you find in that kind of the terrain, you have amazing population of insects because that’s the base of the pyramid on which other life forms exist, and we have a diversity of more than 250 to 300 species of plants that we have brought into this landscape and created these forests.

Deepika: At last count 1,45,000 plants of 200 species in the Park were planted by children, adults – citizens.

Arpita: That does sound like a tremendous transformation! Really, like you said, one sees before and after pictures of such projects and somehow it seems doable and easy which is of course the point of such pictures – to provide inspiration. Yet tremendous tenacity, the free giving of time and hard work goes into making citizen led initiatives such as this one become a reality.

Deepika: What’s interesting though is that even though the project – its vision and outcome, both – have been hailed as a success story, there have been quite a few challenges through the years, ‘battles’ as Vijay refers to them. They’ve had to fight several times to save the park from conversion into a zoo or a crocodile park, or a Singapore style night safari, and, most recently, from a highway cutting through the centre of the park.

Arpita: How did they battle it out?

Deepika: Well this is where the stakeholders, the people who participated in raising the forest had a part to play – both adults and children – proving the value of a democratic participative process!

Vijay: Children have shown me that you know, they can do something. Like this whole road business – 4000 children came to protest against the road through the park and they’re always ready and it’s not just rhetoric that somebody has fed into them. Partly it could be but a lot of it is also seeing the destruction everyday, so much of destruction is happening to our natural world. And so I see that light, that sense of delight in the wild and the wild mystery unfolding in front of them. That’s good fun.

Arpita: So glad to hear that they’ve been able to fight for and keep the vision of the biodiversity park till date. Yet I was thinking how the continued conflict does reflect the tensions in vision and planning, even in terms of how we understand development within cities.

Deepika: Indeed, and Vijay did speak to the urgent need to do things differently.

Vijay: I think we have to look at development from a different lens. Otherwise what has happened in this race of developing and GDP, we have lost wilderness, we’ve lost our wild, we have… but it’s not just wilderness for the sake of wilderness, you know. It has so much ecological services. Like Gurgaon draws three hundred percent more water, three times more water then it goes into the ground. Yeah, and that’s the case with Faridabad, that’s the case with Delhi. And so large part of India, we are just exploiting natural resources with this belief that you can transport the ecological services from one side to another.

Deepika: Indian cities are in such a dire state. This project is an example of how cities can be built differently, how we can begin to shift a relationship of conflict and exploitation into one of partnership – but this idea needs to go further than one project, it needs to percolate into our planning and our notion of development. In fact, this is already taking place in cities like Madrid which is building an urban forest in the city in a bid to combat climate change.

Vijay: I think it is important when we look in a city that when we do a city planning we look at where residential places are, where commercial spaces are, where the roads are going to move, where the drains are going to move. We look at all those aspects. Where the schools are going to be, where our playgrounds are going to be. What we miss is where the wilds are going to be. Where are forest going to be and we have to integrate our forests into our cities. There is no shortcut. We will have to integrate wild into the city.

Urban spaces have ecology which is under stress. We have mongoose. We have civets, we have you know bats, we have birds of many many kinds – like Delhi boasts a bird population of about 400 species that are recorded in Delhi and close regions. 400 species of birds that are recorded every year, that’s a huge chunk. So instead of cutting them off. Why don’t we plan for it? And you know urbanization is our future, we will make more and more urban spaces. So we have to create another layer, which is the wild layer. These are the wild areas in our cities where people can experience the wild and I also often say this that a wild space cannot be saved if humans don’t react or interact creatively with that wild space.

Arpita: You know, as an urban gardener, I was listening to your conversation with Vijay and also thinking about how maybe in very small ways we all can practice the principles that the Aravalli Biodiversity Park is built upon. Maybe we can’t quite create a forest in our homes but we can nudge the process of rewilding the city along in little ways?

Deepika: Actually this was something I did ask Vijay about! How do we as citizens begin to embody the idea of rewilding.

Vijay: Usually the rewilding word is associated with larger landscapes, or introduction of species, but I think what an individual can do and what a collective can do. Individual, as I mentioned before, the plant palette in your house can be native, can be bird and butterfly friendly, bird butterfly bee friendly. You know, you don’t pump toxic chemicals into your rose and you know, whatever plants that you have in your garden. That’s the first step. Second step – you do not release chemicals in the soil or in you know, flush it down into your STP, you know, so be conscious of what about it so that because that’s going to go somewhere, to destroy somewhere, you know, whether it is the river whether it is the dumping of waste solid waste you are going to be impacted badly. So to be mindful of it as a second step at a personal level. Third, we should fund using the support people who are doing regarding project code. You should give your voluntary support to them. You should go and work with them into the rewilding projects or conservation projects that they are doing in there in your vicinity in your city. I think that’s very very important. Question the government, question the people who are integral authorities about the steps they’re taking. So making your governments accountable, making you know powerful people accountable is another very very responsible job that you can do in terms of rewilding. And if you get, happened to get larger space to work on then there are principles are very simple. Look at the wild space next to your you know city or like in the Aravalis, you could find the best of Aravalis native forest that you can see around, pick up the plants that grow and bring them back into the city. It is what we have done and we are very proud of it and I’m sure every citizen can do it.

Arpita: You know in TCCs book club Reading Circle we read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, and I am reminded of something she says in it: “Action on behalf of life transforms.” And though we haven’t spoken to it explicitly, i can’t help but sense that that is the real story here – one of understanding and shifting the underlying relationships that exist between land and its flora and fauna, land and its people.

Deepika: Yes, i think its reflected in Vijay’s own journey and choice to be a ‘forest gardener’, in the amazing grit reflected in the iamgurgaon collectives effort to not only make this project a reality but then to ensure that there will always be custodians to those forests beyond themselves. As she says: “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.”

Outro: Since the recording of this episode the Aravalli Bodiversity Park first “other effective area-based conservation measures” (OECM) site on the occassion of world wetlands day in Feb 2022 which designates the area a biodiversity hotspot on the international map. It is a testament to what is possible when there is citizen support to protect biodiversity. In another part of the country Mumbai however, the Aarey Conservation Citizen’s Group is fighting to protect the Aarey forest which is a green lung of the city. It is again in the limelight as the government wants to build a metro care shed on this land. The move has seen individuals, students, environmentalists, NGOs coming out in support of the forest. If you are wondering what you can do in your city, join a citizen group, talk to the people in your circle about these issues and advocate to protect the biodiversity in your city.

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The Sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.