Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

Show notes (edited)

 

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #3. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

Lalitha Krishnan: When my daughter went to college in Haryana a few years ago, she was dismayed. “Amma, there are no trees here,” she said. Things changed subsequently; but it makes me especially thrilled today to have as my guest, a rewilder who specializes in rewilding landscapes.

I’m speaking to Vijay Dhasmana, a well-known rewilder of ‘IAmGurgaon’ fame, who has been hugely instrumental and successful in rewilding around 400 acres of wasteland (that’s approx. 300 times the size of a football field). This site is part of the Aravalli range on the edge of a millennium city, Gurgaon, near New Delhi.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation podcast Vijay. It’s so very inspiring to read about your work and hear a positive conservation story in India’s urban landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: Thank you Lalitha. Thank you for inviting me to your podcast.

Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely my pleasure. Just the scale of the ‘IAmGurgaon’ (IAG) project sounds monumental. It’s been a long and I’m sure a very interesting journey for you but not devoid of some rocky roadblocks. Could you first draw us a geological picture of the Aravalli landscape and tell us how you started on the project?

Very interesting that you use the word rocky roadblocks. Well, this place that we have been rewilding or working on for the past nine years is a rocky, hilly outcrop of the Aravallis. Aravallis, as you know, are the oldest fold mountains in the world, perhaps; much older than the Himalayas. And, they extend from Delhi all the way to Gujarat. Some geologists believe that when the Indian plate met the Tibetan plate, the Aravallis are/were under the Tibetan plate. That makes them really long range.

This 400 acres that you’re talking about which is the Aravalli Biodiversity Park where we’ve been working on to create a forest is sitting on the northern edge of the Aravallis. The Aravalli is quite diverse in its flora and fauna. It has a great value in terms of, checking the desertification that is happening on the western side. You can see the pile-up of sand on the south-western side of the Aravallis and the plant community is also rich and diverse. As you go to the south of the Aravallis, the forests become richer, the moisture regime is higher, rainfall is higher… the hills are higher. Just imagine Mt Abu, which is quite a remarkable forest. In Udaipur and beyond or Mt Abu, you get much more rain than you do in Jaipur or Delhi or Gurgaon, Haryana, where the northern Aravallis sit. So, the landscape in the southern Aravallis is much richer compared to what it is in the northern Aravallis. What you’re sitting on is a hilly outcrop. The rocks that you see is mostly quartzite rock which is formed after sandstone is metamorphosed. The top layer is that, mostly in the northern Aravalli. The park is sitting on quartzite rock, which is perhaps 1.2 billion or 700 million years old. That is the age of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. It must have gone through huge changes in this large geological timescale. When we look into rewilding, it’s important what timescale we look into. When we approached this land for rewilding, we had to negotiate in terms of what we are doing. I hope I helped create that geological picture?

Lalitha Krishnan: This is way more than I knew. Thank you. You were going to talk about how you were approached you to do the project.

Vijay Dhasmana: I have worked very closely with someone called Pradip Krishen— the man who wrote Trees of Delhi and then Jungle Trees of Central India—who was in his previous avatar, a filmmaker. He has been a mentor and a friend on this journey and has influenced me a lot. We used to work together in Sunder nursery, which was an Aga Khan Trust project. After that project was over for us, Pradip called me one day and said, “There’s a citizen’s group which is very keen on working on some landscape. Would you be interested?” So, that’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’. They contacted me and invited me to visit the site.

And when I reached there, the site was in a really, really, sad state. It was a barren landscape, mostly a barren landscape with no soil; gravel all around and few patches of Prosopis juliflora, the alien invasive species brought in around the late 19th century and propagated all over India in the 21st century. So there were few patches of that. When I got to know more about the land, read about it and saw the site more intensely, I got to know it was a mining site. There were eight stone crushers. The rocks were quarried and brought to these stone crushers where they were crushed and then sold to Gurgaon. You can imagine a picture where all these mines were being dug and Gurgaon was raising its towers. In my head, that was the visual picture for me.

That’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’ and I tried to understand their vision. Their vision, at that time, was to just plant. They had a campaign called ‘Million Trees Gurgaon’. I questioned them further, “What do you mean a million trees?” I am not a great fan of this number game you know…Million, trillion trees. It might be good for catching attention but I believe in substantial change in smaller habitats rather than just this number game of millions and billions. So I dissuaded them to not talk about a million trees. The landscape is not going to take a million trees anyway. It’s a super group of people with the right intent. They were all ready to question, understand, discuss…all of that.

Lalitha Krishnan: When people talk of rewilding” or restoring or beautifying the community—which seems to be the common parlance but may not necessarily mean the same thing— what do they mean? Can you explain what rewilding is?

Vijay Dhasmana: This term is relatively new. And it is a convenient term because you know scientists use various kinds of terminology. But, in landscape terms, I think rewilding fits pretty well, where it’s also self-explanatory. Rewilding. Wilderness is the approach to the landscape treatment. Essentially what rewilding means is any fissured land, any landscape damaged due to human activity is restored to what one thinks—after referring to enough documentation, visiting forests and landscapes around then—and then imitating from nature and recreating those landscapes which were damaged. That, in a nutshell, is what rewilding is.

It means that you make a list of plants…list.., there might be microhabitats, microclimates that can create a little larger landscapes of plant communities. In the case of northern Aravalli, for instance, the hill slopes are dominated by a tree called Anogeisus pendula that is called Dhau. In the valleys, you won’t see much of Dhau where there is high moisture. It is taken over by Kaim or Mitragyna parvifolia. So, every plant has a niche where they grow and their association where they grow. To understand all of that, then imitate and recreate it in a fissured landscape is what I’d say is rewilding.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re an advocate for native species. That’s what you’re talking about. What’s wrong with planting ornamental tree species in your neighbourhood?

Vijay Dhasmana: I don’t see any reason why ornamental plants shouldn’t be planted. ‘Ornamental’ is a feature-oriented approach where a native tree can be ornamental. Of course like for instance Amaltas is a forest tree of the Aravallis. In the large Indian landscape, it is a forest tree but used ornamentally now. So ornamental is not worrying for our neighbourhoods… as long as they are native. As long as they are from our landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is truly native?

Nativity is a very debated topic because they are many advocates for defining nativity and there are many advocates who don’t believe in nativity. Largely, nativity is that millions of years of evolution happened since flowering plants came to be. The plant kingdom has a kind of a symbiotic relationship with the animal kingdom, …you see that from what Darwin has studied. In this millions of years of evolution or togetherness, there is huge interdependence. Species have evolved with time. When we bring in a plant from a different landscape firstly, where are we bringing it from? For e.g., a plant, which belongs in the Himalaya or from the higher reaches of the Himalaya is native to India. But it may not work in if you plant it in Delhi; therefore it is not native to the Delhi landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about a plant from Delhi in Haryana or Gujarat or…?

Vijay Dhasmana: If it’s from Haryana, it’s part of the Aravallis but it’s about the needs of the plant. What kind of climate it needs, what moisture regime it needs. With the whole intervention of the landscape community and the horticulture community, there has been a movement of plants all over the world. People have moved plants for food, for ornamental purposes and even for rewilding.

Delhi Ridge which was planted up in the 20th century was one of the earliest, leading rewilding projects in India. So, Prosopis juliflora and many other species were brought in by the British to rewild the ridge. They didn’t want to see a barren hill behind their might built landscape. They wanted greenery and so they planted this alien invasive species called Prosopis juliflora. This plant is called Bavalia in Rajasthan which means ‘mad one’ because it just does not allow other things to grow. Very few things grow under it and it propagates itself profusely. It is a very successful species so everyone was in awe of this species. What it did it did was at the cost of the local biodiversity. Nothing was eating it. No pest was attacking it. When you say, a pest is attacking, it’s a relationship with an insect and a plant. If no bugs are eating its leaves, it means something is wrong…food is being taken away yeah?

So ornamental is not a problem, exotic is a problem, alien invasives are big problems like our Lantana camara which is a big nuisance in all our national parks and sanctuaries. In terms of planting our landscapes with exotic species or species that don’t belong to that landscape is like keeping a Himalayan bear confined in a Delhi zoo and try and provide the climate there. That’s exactly what we do when we bring in exotics from different landscapes. We put excess water in them; we nurture them and make them grow. So, they are heavy in terms of maintenance. Many species are not so heavy on maintenance if you bring them from the right climate. But if you bring them from exotic climates—like water-loving plants or plants that need more moisture planted onto a rocky ridge, they are going to suffer. Or you have to provide alternatives like keep feeding water to the plant.

Also, the relationship is not there- when you plant trees for only one species ie humans. It is pleasing to the eyes but is it doing that ecological function? Are the birds pollinating it? Or are the insects pollinating it? Is it part of the whole cycle? That has to be understood. That has to be appreciated and used in the landscape. I can go on and on…

Lalitha Krishnan: I know and that’s lovely but I’ll come back to your million trees. You did say that’s what they (IAG) had in mind initially and that’s changed but what was the purpose in your mind? What did you think when you started with the project?

Interesting. When the groups IAmGurgaon approached me, they were very keen on native plants. Because they had met Pradip and Pradip had advocated native plants. They held on to it and said, “We want to plant native plants”. In the journey after that, we all went to forests. We went to Mangarbani, we went to other landscapes in the Aravalli and understood the forests.

What was I thinking? I was initially playing along. After understanding what was in their minds, I realized what was sustainable and not sustainable. What is the vision we should lend to this place? Gurgaon, which creates the impression of a great city, has come up at a great cost. It has been spreading its wings all over the Aravallis. The whole urbanization has kind of eaten up our natural landscapes. Somehow, it felt that the vision for this place should be that we bring in—in order to celebrate the forests of Aravalli—we bring in the forest of Aravalli into the city. That was what excited the team and me: to work toward bringing the rich Aravalli forests into the city.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s amazing that you compiled a list of 200 missing native species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, and grasses. How did you go about that? Missing species? And then you managed to source seeds for a landscape that was ripped bare by mining and stone crushing and what have you. It all sounds so challenging.

Vijay Dhasmana:: It was a challenge but let me tell you, it’s not rocket science. I haven’t got any academic training in rewilding or even in plants for that matter. It is simply common sense. It’s not rocket science. What it definitely needs is understanding where to look. In the case of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, we had records of forest-kinds recorded during British times. After that, in the 60s, there is someone called Maheshwari, who came out with the Flora of Delhi. So, there are books that talk about flora that exist in different landscapes. You pick up from there and do the groundwork and say, these are the species Parker is talking about or Maheswari is talking about or somebody else is talking about. Then you go around the landscape and see the species you can make out. Then you compile your list…the candidate lists for the landscape.

The bigger challenge is to source them. When IAmGurgaon was starting the first public planting, the plants were from Punjab. It was a big learning for us. The plants which came were not the plants that were committed by the person providing them to us. There was a complete lack of understanding. Most of the trade happens in local names. Local names are quite deceptive many a time. So the plants that came were not exactly the plants we wanted. I gave a proposal to IAmGurgaon to create a nursery. We will get 20-25 maximum species from forest nurseries. As far as going to Ahmedabad, Udaipur, and Jodhpur, we would get only 20-30 species. But if we have to fulfill this vision of creating the forest we will have to create our own nursery. That’s where we began our journey of creating our own nursery.

Lalitha Krishnan: You started this project in 2011. When did you start planting?

Vijay Dhasmana: In 2011 we did a little bit of planting. We could source a little bit at the end of the monsoon season. We were able to source some plants from Jodhpur and some plants from Udaipur. I made trips to Jodhpur and Udaipur to pick up some plants. So, we were able to plant in 2011. The nursery was also started in 2011. We were lucky we got some support on a yearly basis. The first year we were only able to grow close to 35 species. In the second year, we went on to 58 odd species, then 85, then 130, and then, 160. It’s an interesting journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like raising a family.

Vijay Dhasmana: Absolutely.

Lalitha Krishnan: What was your strategy for landscaping with these species from different landscapes? I know you’re experienced but was it easy? Did you have to do a lot of research? How did you fund or manage irrigation on such a large scale?

Vijay Dhasmana: I’ll tell you the details. Firstly, when we made the list, we also bounced it with people, like Pradip for instance. He reviewed the list and said, “Oh perfect. This species should be there not here…” He gave his comments on it. Once we had made our species list, it was important… As I told you, I took my team to different forests in the Aravallis. That was the time to look at the landscape and learn from it. Where is the plant growing? How is it growing? What is the nature of its association? And that is essential, where the gardening element of rewilding comes in. You have to imitate the best that is available you know, in terms of succession….the best of the forests even if you travel in the northern Aravalli. Like in Sariska, for instance. The top canopy would be of Boswellia serrata and its companion species. That is called Salai or local Frankincense. At the top of the hills, on the brow or steepest slope of the hill, you will find this Indian Frankincense. Then there would be some associates. In some of the Aravalli hills, you’ll get Lannea coromandelica or Sterculia urens, the Ghost tree, you know, which is quite common in the Indian peninsula? And there are many other species. On the steep slopes where the runoff is very high, you will find Anogeissus pendula or Dhau tree. In the valley, the composition is different which is dominated by plants that love more moisture and has a thicker canopy. So, there are these niches where different plants grow. There are generalists also…there are specialists also. Like Dhau is a specialist. There are generalists, which grow on the slopes but also grow in the valleys.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like that term.

Vijay Dhasmana:Then there are plants that are colonizers, plants that don’t like competition…

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re talking about plants right? Not people?

Vijay Dhasmana: (laughing) Not people. Plants. And it’s so fascinating to look into the plant world from this lens you know…how plants behave. Basically, making these notes/observations and imitating them in the landscape, was what we did in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So wherever we got the opportunity of planting a Frankincense forest, we created that. The obvious choice…it’s too small a landscape to create very many pockets of diversity but we did plan it out so, on a few hills we’ll plant Boswellia or Indian Frankincense forests. A few hills we’d leave it as a Dhau forest. These rocky cliffs we want to showcase certain plants that are otherwise not seen. Like Ghost tree coming out of cut rock faces (cut) by mining and they became fabulously successful. We got a Rock-loving fig is also covering some of the rocky cliffs that you see in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So, it was imagination, it was imitation, it was a little bit of playing around with the species and the diversity but never going beyond the niches that we had observed.

Valleys have different characters but valleys have a set of species, you know. You never planted a species, which loves valleys in the hilltops. That’s how we got it done and it was fairly successful, I would say. Let me tell you: no one is growing Anogeissus pendula or even Indian Frankincense. When we planted them in 2012, they were 6-8 inches. The first thing we noticed was that they were eaten up within a couple of days because Nilgai loved all the native plants that we planted. With the exception of Adusa, every other plant was eaten by the Nilgai and cattle that used to graze in the park.

We had to build up strategies on how to protect what we were planting. Today we know we can plant a six-foot tall plant. It was a big challenge then. The landscape does not transform if you plant six inch or eight inch or a foot long plants on a rocky outcrop. It will take some time. The plant will invest all its energy into its root system-to find the right cracks where there is moisture and sustain itself to survive. That’s the strategy of plants in a rocky habitat. It won’t throw its energy into growing big until its root zones are secures and anchored well. From 2011-12 to 2015, people used to question us. “What are you doing? We don’t see anything at all.” But from 2015 onwards suddenly there was a jump in the plants and their response to monsoon. You saw a huge growth in the plants. In 2015, we got a sense of forests. All we had planted during those years began to show. It was a great moment of delight.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you very briefly tell me how you funded the project?

Vijay Dhasmana: The two founders, Latika Thukral, Swanzal Kak are from Gurgaon—all the people were from Gurgaon—Latika, is an ex-banker, Swanzal, is a practicing architect. They have a big network in Gurgaon. They had a model plan where you plant a tree and pay us for the tree. You can come and pant a tree and they were charging money for that. They convinced their family members, familiar corporates to come and plant. Individuals and groups supported the first year. When word went around that IAmGurgaon is planting and you could pay and plant—you could also plant without paying, as there were many days, which were kept for public planting which were not ‘paid’ planting. So, it caught on with the corporate world of Gurgaon. There was a commissioner called Sudhir Rajpal who gave the idea of involving corporates in rewilding this place. IAmGurgaon took that idea very seriously and took that idea in a different direction. In an innovative direction. As of today, we got an amazing 50+ corporates coming and planting at the park.

One of the benefits was that we were between Gurgaon and Delhi. We were in a prime spot. Visibility was very high. IAmGurgaon is very good at engaging the volunteers. When the corporate employees would come and plant IAmGurgaon would engage with them and tell them what we’re doing. Everybody who came to plant was affected by this. They would realize they were making a difference. Next year onwards, it became very, very easy for funding.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess people and corporates too perhaps, took pride in what they were doing together and could see what was happening to their community. That’s positive.

Vijay Dhasmana: That’s right. Very positive.

Lalitha Krishnan: But that wasn’t always the case right? When you started the IAG project proposal started as a Biodiversity Park, water conservation zone and recreational area in 2011. In 2012, a plan was officially put in place to convert the park into City forest. Am I right? They have until 2020 to implement these plans. But then in 2013, there was the talk of creating a wellness centre and spa inside the park. How did you keep the project from derailing? More importantly, how did you keep your sanity?

Vijay Dhasmana: I think this is a very important question and it’s very important your audience listens to this.

I’ve had the experience of working with conservation organizations before. For us, MoU s or Memorandum of Understanding with a government agency or whomever you were working with was very, very important. But when I came and joined the initiative of IAmGurgaon, I learnt very soon that they don’t have a MoU. They were all in kindness and good intent that they were planting without having a MoU with the government. I pushed IAmGurgaon to have a MoU in place.

It was very interesting and sweet also. They believed that they are not doing anything wrong and therefore there should be no issue… they are doing something important for the city and why the need for a MoU? As I said before, it’s a very vibrant and open group; they looked in it, pushed for a MoU. We finally got a MoU in 2012 that we should create a forest showcasing the flora of the Aravallis and make it into a water recharging zone and educational place.

That got ratified by the municipal corporation of Gurgaon but you know the municipal corporation of Gurgaon is an interesting place. It’s run by the Commissioner. Of course, it has a council but the main person who leads it is a Commissioner who is mostly an IAS officer. And, it depends on how he is perceiving that place? A lot of energy went into educating the Commissioners who came in. Their buying-in was very important for the vision of the park. So yeah, while it was envisioned as an Aravalli forest, showcasing the flora of the Aravallis, there would be…the mayor at one point went to Singapore and was very fascinated by the night safari there and came back and said, Why can’t we start a night safari here?” Another time, one Commissioner suggested, “Oh this is such a barren landscape… Why not create a crocodile park here?” Another time, another person suggested, “why not create a health spa?” All that was happening because the plants were not showing up. As I told you before, they were very young when they were planted and the landscape was a very harsh rocky landscape. Things changed from2015 onwards. In the last three years, we have been getting a good response from the municipal corporation where they now see this place is getting good visibility and is doing well. In fact, the forest Dept. got a study done through IUCN and they applauded the work done in the park.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is my next question. What has the transformation been like ecologically speaking? Would you speak about that?

Vijay Dhasmana: Sure, let me you tell you, the difficult things were not just these you know: What is the head of the organization thinking or what are the influential people talking about? It was also about the locals around. Traditionally, or in the past, this was the common land of a Nathurpur village. While the village had sold its land and people were getting richer—I often say this you know, people who were grazing in the park are now bringing their dogs for a walk—that was a huge transformation for not all of them of course but many of them getting richer by selling the land in Nathupur village. There was a huge grazing pressure in the park but not from the Nathupur village. People were coming from Rajasthan or sending cattle from various other villages. It was a big track of land, which was open for all. So cattle grazing was one big issue. We had to negotiate with the villagers and say, “OK, let’s divide the park into two halves. One half we want to strictly protect. The second half is open to grazing. We had different strategies but it came about after a lot of negotiations, a lot of questioning, and a lot of interactions with the villagers. When we divided the park into two halves, the first half started showing improvement and the second half was of course not doing so well. With time, things have changed. People have started appreciating it and we were able to convince them that cattle grazing is not condusive. Delhi built a wall. Cattle coming from Delhi were stopped.

Then, grass cutting. There were three villages that used to come and cut grass here. Again, we had to negotiate with them to cut from on half and not from the other half. They would often ask, “What is wrong with us cutting grass? The grass is not a desirable thing. We’re not cutting your trees.” So you had to go through the path of educating them that grasses are important and it’s not easy to convince someone who has been doing it for many many, years how grasses can be important for a park. Those were important challenges.

 There was a challenge of perception. There was a media campaign which was against the work we had done, consistently reporting, “nothing is happening, nothing is happening”. No one would come to you and say, “show us what you’ve done.” They would just report that nothing is happening. That was a big challenge for us. I think the physical act of rewilding was the easiest..in retrospect. All these human problems were much bigger. This huge real estate stake on the land… Haryana govt., as you know, has been very reluctant in declaring or protecting the Aravallis. There is huge real estate pressure. All that was playing around in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park and in the larger Aravalli landscape. I think I highlighted the problems broadly.

Irrigation was a challenge but the good thing about irrigation is that when you plant native species in the right niches, then, you don’t have to irrigate them too much. We irrigate only when it is extremely necessary and we don’t irrigate them after the third year. Lately, we realized that certain species don’t need irrigation for more than one year. It’s self-sustaining then. The growth will be reduced but that’s better for the plant. As I told you before, the plants are investing all their energy into the root zone. When they are comfortable, they will become big.

We also tried many other strategies. Seed ball was one. It’s now a very popular methodology for rewilding. For us, seed balls were not so successful because we get 600mm rains and most of this rain comes in three showers. Therefore the moisture regime never builds for seeds to germinate on their own. We experimented in various places with seed balls. We got some germination. We also figured out some species that were doing well compared to other species. Lately what we tried was scratching the surface. Most of the surface here is gravelly. You scratch the surface, put in the seed and cover it up. Like tilling. We got a huge response from that. Trees, shrubs; all of them responded very well to this. The challenge was you’re not going to irrigate it so how was it going to take the harsh winter, how was it going to take the harsh summer? To my surprise, I am very delighted to share with you that all the little saplings that germinated in the last monsoon went through the phase of severe winter and severe summer without any irrigation and survived. There must have been many, which died, but there is a huge percentage, which is surviving also. So, it could be there is a learning there. If you put the right seeds in the landscape, you will get more desirable results.

Lalitha Krishnan: Very briefly, again could you tell me about the transformation of the park now and, also, who are the stakeholders of the Biodiversity Park now? From being a barren land it’s now used by so many people. So, I want to know what’s happening.

Vijay Dhasmana: We have managed to add 200 species. But as we explore the Aravallis further, we see more species and we get more greedy and a little more ambitious. What rewilding has done is … I think, in 2016 a few birders came to the park. They were quite impressed with the bird population in the park. Many of them had been visiting this place but in 2016, there was a surge of bird diversity and populations. If you know about ebird- the portal where you record bird sightings in a particular site, close to 176 species were reported in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. So let me tell you there is no perennial water body. It’s a very dry landscape. It has grasses—We have more than 40 species of grasses there—and it is an open forest. This kind of forest and the number of species ie 176 is very good… amongst the best in this kind of habitat.

 We are conducting a study. JNU researchers are conducting a study and they are reporting back about bird populations and diversity. They are doing a comparative study with an unrestored site and their reports are showing how restoration work in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park has been immensely useful for the bird diversity and population.

Lalitha Krishnan; This shows that it is a healthy park now.

Vijay Dhasmana: Yes, it’s a healthy habitat now. We’ve also created vegetation plots and are trying to observe the growth of plants in those plots and making notes of them. This may culminate in a study where we can say rewilding Aravalli landscape should be done in this particular or that particular way. This big undergoing study will hopefully in five years time show us what we did right or what should be the protocol or module.

Our education programmes are underway. That’s another area of intervention that we’re going to work on more seriously and actively.

In terms of animal biodiversity, we have nilgai, jackals, porcupine, jungle cats, and mongooses, monitor lizards, many kinds of reptiles-snakes of many kinds… It’s a thriving place for insect populations. People point to me, “this leaf is eaten.” I smile back and tell them, “someone’s stomach got full.” It’s just the attitude you have to shift: insects are not pests. This is an inclusive system, not an exclusive system. In terms of biodiversity, we are hoping more species will be recorded. We will conduct more surveys in the coming years.

I have to tell you an anecdotal story. I got a call from the DFO last year. He said, “There is a leopard reported in the park and we are sending a rescue team.” They send the rescue team that was stationed there for a whole day. We have gardeners or mallis who are out on the landscape the whole day and they have found so sign of any leopard. Now, this perception is created that it is becoming a forest. So, that’s a nice story for us

Lalitha Krishnan: True. There’s nothing like a “leopard” (story) to keep bad elements away.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s a very safe park. MCG has been very supportive of this place and its vision. They have provided guards for this place and they visit themselves. Municipal Cooperation of Gurgaon is the main stakeholders of the park. The land belongs to the MCG. The neutral stakeholders are the corporates who have funded it in very many ways. There are 1000+ employees who have come and planted. We have planted one lakh plants in this landscape. Many people and children have come. Close to 60 schools have come and planted in the park on a year-year basis. All these are stakeholders. There are regular walkers in the park who swear by its wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: How wonderful for you to hear that they swear by the wilderness.

Vijay Dhasmana: There are some people who report, “There is nothing there. It’s just a jungle”. It’s also attitude. But even calling it a jungle is a compliment. Then we had various ministers to forest officials come to this place to see the work we have done. That has worked.

Lalitha Krishnan: I don’t know if you’ve partly answered this question but in your article, ‘Creating Aravalli biodiversity park, Gurgaon’ you begin by saying, “There’s’ a lot to take away from well-intended mistakes we made” So can you share your takeaway from that experience?

Vijay Dhasmana: To start with, planting right. For instance, planting. There is a big momentum at this stage in the country from the Satguru rally. There are several organizations that are swearing of planting trees everywhere. So, the intention is right which is to overcome the pressure we have created. It’s very intentioned. But it’s a mistake because you shouldn’t just plant. You should plant right. It’s not the number game. It’s the creating of habitats. If you are planting all the trees on the riverbed, it is a mistake. If you are planting trees or shrubs that are not suitable for Ladakh, then it’s a mistake.

For instance, there is the whole movement to convert the desert into woodland. You can argue about which is better but what is has to be understood and appreciated is that there is rich diversity in the desert. There is a huge movement to cover all our grasslands—the remaining of our grasslands—into woodlands. One often forgets that if you want to protect the tiger, the prey base is from the grasslands, not the woodland. In a nutshell, what I am trying to say is, intentions may be right but if the whole understanding is not there, it’s a mistake.

Our mistakes were some of these such as just planting to creating habitats which were a transformation for us. Then, appreciating the involvement of citizens. You don’t want to alienate the local community. They should be participants in the whole venture and you cannot ignore that. It will fight back.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re done with IAG right? What projects are you currently working on now?

Vijay Dhasmana: Aravalli Biodiversity park is not done yet. In terms of rewilding, yes, we have to conduct many more studies in the park. We are working on citizen’s interactions which means programmes with the citizens and children. That’s another area. Interpretation is another big area we want to work on. So we’re not done, done yet.

I am also part of another project of IAG, which is to rewild a 5k bund which was created by the British to protect the villages from flash floods. With urbanization, it has been all encroached upon and lost their meaning. Everything on the upstream side or high on the slopes has been urbanized. The Forest Dept. gave this project to IAG to create a corridor forest at a stretch of 5.2 k. We are working on rewilding that stretch and we’re almost done.

One of the very important projects for me to learn on is in Jaipur. Here we are not creating woodland, we are not creating a jungle but we are creating a jungle of sand dunes. So, this is not a woodland. We are creating grasslands and scrublands close to 300 acres in Jaipur. This land is sanctuary abutting Nahargarh sanctuary and the idea is to celebrate the plant community that you find on a dune. These are old dunes that are very settled sand dunes and are not shifting sand dunes. But their flower community is very different. So, we are rewilding with a different intent, which is to create a scrubland and grassland depicting the flora of those sand dunes. I am working on those projects.

Lalitha Krishnan: It all sounds huge and amazing and very promising. I am so grateful. My next question was if you had to do it all over again would you? But you are doing it again in a new landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s very interesting. Every time you take up a project like this, it’s a new journey. Of course, you have learned a lot like nursery creation and plants…there is a new movement now. More and more people are asking for native plants. You can see that forest nurseries have also increased and are growing native plants. So sourcing plants have become easier. At least, some species have become easier than others. So yes, every project is new and I think one has to appreciate and get excited about it. I get very iffy at the start of the project. It’s a sweet combination of the ability to do it and the nervousness of doing it. Yeah, it is exciting.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you mind sharing a conservation term or scientific word that you think is significant? Or something you like or you think is significant for you?

Vijay Dhasmana: Haven’t we done this? Rewilding?

Lalitha Krishnan: Actually, it is.

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilding is important as a vocabulary because it has its own direction. It has its own momentum. Rewilding. It’s not an ornamental garden path but re wilding which is all-inclusive. It’s inclusive of the plant community, animals, insects, birds, higher plants, lower plants –all of that. So I think it is a sweet word.

Lalitha Krishnan: It is a sweet word and it’s a nice word for everyone to know. Especially, in an urban landscape. It’s been such an interesting and educational talk. Thank you so much. I wish there were more people like you inspiring more people like us.

Vijay Dhasmana: If we can rewild all the gardens we have, it will give a different meaning to city life and spaces.

Thank you so much for inviting me. I feel privileged to share the small story of Aravalli Biodiversity Park and the people there doing incredible work in terms of protecting and saving the forests and forest species. We are doing a little bit in the urban landscapes.

Lalitha Krishnan:. It’s huge. It’s not little.

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Lalitha Krishnan:. I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Stay tuned for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation.

If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents

Read articles by Vijay Dhasmana:

Aravallis – Land Art BDP article (1)

LA-48 V-Dhasmana Arvali-Biodiversity-Park

Vijay can be contacted at:vijay.dhasmana@gmail.com

 


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