Many urban areas can even today be proud of their natural and green spaces. Whether in the form of forests, wetlands or other ecosystems, these areas are crucial for every city or town. In contrast to manicured gardens, they support a significant biodiversity of both flora and fauna and play an important role in maintaining ground water levels, soil quality and so on. However, trends in urban development have consistently undermined the conservation of these spaces and continue to do so. Their position is often compromised in the light of construction of flyovers, widening of roads or building large complexes for offices, shopping malls etc.

One such important green space is Smriti Van opposite Sector 16 of the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA) in Uttar Pradesh. Noida is an important satellite town adjoining Delhi. 12 acres of the Smriti Van park were set aside to commemorate, and honour the memory of the martyrs of the Kargil War, and this is regularly visited by residents of nearby localities. Families of Kargil martyrs have planted about 150 saplings here.

But Smriti Van is more than just a landscaped garden that can be reconstructed at will. The park is one in the chain of a long green belt of 6 kms starting from the Gautam Buddha statue at the Delhi- NOIDA border to the Okhla barrage running parallel to the Yamuna River. About 30% of it is wild. Regular visitors to the park have on numerous occasions encountered wildlife such as wild hare and say that they have seen the droppings of Neelgai (an antelope also known as blue bull). This occurrence in close proximity to bustling urban settlements is rare and demands due respect.

Very close to Smriti Van is the 400-hectare Okhla Bird Sanctuary, notified under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The sanctuary is a treasure house of birds, both migratory and endemic to the area and is an internationally recognized Important Bird Area. According to the Delhi Bird Club, the bird diversity in Okhla can match that of Bharatpur in Rajasthan, a very important national park. The Club’s website highlights that of the 450 recorded species in Delhi, 300 have been spotted in the Okhla Sanctuary.

But none of this seemed to matter when the construction of an approximately Rs.370 million (Rs.37 crore) flyover started in May-June 2003. This structure, technically known as an interchange has led to the construction of concrete pillars in Smriti Van, and its soil been dug out. Several pillars have also been built up at the Sector 18-Dadri crossing where a trumpet like structure is proposed. This idea is to allow for free flow of traffic by removal of a red light, so that there can be uninterrupted movement upto another proposed interchange and subsequently to an expressway. Note that the Okhla sanctuary has already been impacted with the construction of a Delhi-Noida Toll Bridge, and this new construction running straight through Smriti Van will only add it.

“An interchange is a grade separated intersection with connecting roadways (ramps) for turning traffic between highway approaches”

-- ‘Guidelines for the Design of Interchanges in Urban Areas’ Indian Roads Congress, 1985

The design of the interchange is problematic not just because of its environmental impacts but also because of concerns related to the movement of residents accessing the green belt. Smriti Van is frequented by nearby residents for their regular walks, jogs, exercises and even picnicking. There are questions related to urban planning too, as pointed out by some experts. Citizens will have to cross uninterrupted and fast traffic to access the Smriti Van and adjoining green areas; this is likely to increase the potential for accidents. Common sense dictates that residential and office areas within a city or a town will have traffic lights and reduced speed limits.

At another level, green belts like the one in question also play a major hydrological function of groundwater recharge essential to serve the water needs of townships like Noida. The flattening of the undulating terrain by earth filling, will directly affect the water security of the nearby areas with the essential water percolation not taking place. The Tribune reported on March 19 that the Noida administration has made water-harvesting mandatory for constructions within the township, also stating that groundwater is the main source of potable water for Noida. It is ironic then that the same administration had approved the damage to the green belt.

Keeping all this and more in mind, an NGO Samrakshan along with other environmental groups, urban planning experts and ecologists approached the Noida Authority for action. Detailed reports pointing to the environmental and social problems surrounding the construction were prepared. Samrakshan also approached the High Court and has subsequently been in regular touch with the authority discussing possible next steps. One of the main concerns of the authority was that a substantial amount of money has already been spent in the construction of the pillars. The authority has also requested Samrakshan to put together an alternative for the present design to the present trumpet interchange.

Construction inside Smriti Van

What was worrisome is this: as the groups dug deeper into the material provided by the authority, it was realized that no traffic surveys were carried out to determine the need of the interchange. What is available is the traffic survey for another cloverleaf interchange much ahead, wherein the flow of traffic from the intersection in question has been considered. Samrakshan along with transport experts is attempting a fresh traffic survey, which will point out whether a construction is needed in the first place or not, and if yes, what kind.

The guidelines from the Indian Road Congress 1985 say that “Interchanges are costly and a treatment of this type cannot be justified unless the benefits likely to accrue to the community are so high as to exceed the high cost associated with such improvements.” So it might not be worthwhile constructing an expensive and complicated structure. Transport experts working with Samarakshan say that it might be enough to construct a hump, although that will be finally determined by the findings of the survey. A regular hump like structure would save on economic, social and environmental costs.

For sometime now (coinciding with the change in government in Uttar Pradesh), the construction of the flyover had been temporarily halted and this has given the necessary breathing space to the campaign and surely to Smriti Van. But issues like this are not limited to only Noida, such constructions are taking place all over the country. Every city is grappling with not allowing its green to get concretised. Urban forests are being converted into landscaped parks. Green hedges dividing roads see themselves being sacrificed at the hand of tiled ones with iron grills on both sides. Trees are being ruthlessly cut, as roads need to be widened for smoother movement of vehicles.

Recently, a Bangalore based NGO, Environment Support Group has written to the Governor strongly protesting with the illegal felling of 40 trees on Cubbon Road, in the light that “the trees could obstruct traffic flow and also be a security threat to dignitaries.” The letter highlights that the “trees were planted with the intention of reflecting Bangalore’s heritage as a city of gardens and boulevards”.

The sacrifice of green spaces is already throwing up red signals. Urban development at the cost of water, earth and air is surely not sustainable. And if the flyover plan through Smriti Van actually includes the environmental and social costs within it, it might not be viable!