How a Delhi High Court judge has been renewing capital's green cover one order at a time

Justice Waziri's commitment to the cause of environmental conservation and his unique orders have set a precedent for how judicial activism can promote sustainability.
Justice Najmi Waziri
Justice Najmi Waziri

Two public officials were recently handed jail terms by the Delhi High Court for not complying with directions. Curiously, they were held in contempt for non-compliance of the Court’s directions for protection of trees in Delhi.

While the sentence was stayed, a closer look into the orders passed by the author of this verdict, Justice Najmi Waziri, shows his unwavering commitment to environmental conservation in the national capital.

His orders have resulted in the plantation of one lakh trees in Delhi in the last five years, data reveals.

Court-ordered tree plantation in the city so far.
Court-ordered tree plantation in the city so far.Delhi High Court

Back in 2018, the judge devised a novel way to combat the increasing environmental challenges associated with urbanisation, pollution and climate change.

While handing out punishments, he issued directions to plant trees and saplings. Similar tasks were given to those who didn't comply with the Court's directions in the prescribed time.

The stakeholders involved in his mission spanning five years underline the judge's utilisation of the High Court's powers to preserve trees and to instil a sense of accountability in people.

Planting the idea

In 2018, Justice Waziri was hearing matters on the criminal side when a plea came before him seeking quashing of an FIR against a man. The petitioner who had sought the reprieve was booked on charges of attempt to commit culpable homicide.

Although the matter had been amicably settled between the parties, the Court thought it fit to give the petitioner an opportunity to make amends.

As a result, directions were issued to the complainant as well as the petitioner to help the Forest Department in the maintenance of the forest area in Delhi’s Southern Ridge for two weeks and to plant 300 trees during the period.

Similar directions were given in 74 different cases that followed, amounting to 16,000 court-ordered plants in 2018.

Advocate Amit Chadha
Advocate Amit Chadha

Advocate Amit Chadha had appeared for the State as the prosecutor when the Court quashed the FIR in 2018. 

Chadha, who is now a court-appointed commissioner in these cases, recalled how the method adopted by the Court was not just to mechanically hand out directions to plant trees. Also considered was the type of trees that were to be planted and other relevant ecological factors. 

The parties were directed to plant trees, but the Court also passed directions towards what kind of the species were to be planted and what should be the minimum height of the tree or a plant,” said Chadha.

The orders stand testimony of the exercise of powers of the High Court under Articles 215 and 226 of the Indian Constitution. 

Article 215 stipulates, “High Courts to be courts of record every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself”, whereas Article 226 empowers the High Courts in India to issue “directions, orders or writs to any government, authority or person may also be exercised by any High Court exercising jurisdiction in relation to the territories within which the cause of action”.    

The process, significantly, roped in the various governmental agencies, including the Forest Department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority, to undertake such drives across the city. 

The directions did not only prioritise the immediate task of planting trees, but also emphasised on the importance of nurturing and protecting them in the long run.

'Dichotomy' of justice and atonement 

In view of the degrading tree cover in the city owing to construction activities, Justice Waziri’s orders mandated compensatory planting of trees. 

The innovative approach ensured that any such environmental impact of urbanisation would be met with a counterbalancing measure, promoting a sustainable development and serving as a blueprint for other cities grappling with similar challenges.

The key outcome of the judge’s initiative has been two lush green orchards - Insaaf (Urdu term for justice) and Maafi (atonement) Baghs in the city. 

In a recent order, the judge had highlighted, 

Sometimes seeking atonement for one’s wrongs brings peace and to some degree closure for the individual. It also lends to a wholesome integration of people in the society. Maafi i.e. atonement is a value which needs to be reiterated and practiced.”

Way to Insaaf Bagh in Southern Ridge.
Way to Insaaf Bagh in Southern Ridge.

Justice or Insaaf,” he underlined, “was the glue that binds a society together and preservation of the environment and protection of trees and ecology is the duty of each individual.”

The larger benefit to the environment and ecology, from Insaaf Bagh and Maafi Bagh should be shared with the public so as to encourage greater community participation in future remedial endeavours, where the citizen feel that they are the rightful stakeholders in protecting the environment and conserving their green areas,” he wrote.

Maafi Bagh, spread across hundreds of acres in Delhi’s Central Ridge, a notified forest area, is part of the forestation drive stemming from the court-ordered penance for parties falling foul of the law of the land. 

Delhi's Central Ridge shows pre and post plantation periods.
Delhi's Central Ridge shows pre and post plantation periods.Delhi High Court

While imposing a fine on a company for breach of its orders, the Court ordered the use the amount for the “larger public good” and plantation of 1,40,000 trees in the Central Ridge.

This region comprises six parts, and 423 hectares of the total area falls under the Forest Department, informed Navneet Shrivastava, Deputy Conservator of Forests (West Division).

The authorised representatives of the company were asked to plant “deciduous, indigenous varieties” of a nursery age of three-and-a-half years and a minimum height of six feet. Until the end of the month that year, the area saw over 45,000 trees being planted.

Shrivastava underscored how the plantation orders brought respite to the Central Ridge area, which endures a high-level of air pollution.

"The Central Ridge experiences more air pollution being bang in the middle of the city when compared to the outskirts. The plantation here started in 2019 and approximately over 54,000 have been planted so far," he said.

Senior Advocate N Hariharan had been waiting for his case to come up in Justice Waziri’s court when the discussion in another matter caught his attention.

I was waiting for my turn in some other matter when these petitions were being heard and something propped up about reviving lakes and the discussion moved on this, that, if we plant trees around, they will retain water and recharge their own aquifers and things like that,” said Hariharan.

N Hariharan, Senior Advocate
N Hariharan, Senior Advocate

The senior lawyer lives in the Central Delhi neighbourhood called Inderpuri which adjoins the Central Ridge. Hariharan has vivid memories of the water bodies on the ridge when he was growing up. 

I have seen those water bodies drying up. I have seen those water bodies completely turning into land…Somewhere in the 70s there was a massive fire and then thereafter it got evacuated and the DDA developed it in the farm of a normal park. The lakes were lost all the same,” he recollected.

Due to the familiarity with the region and the knowledge of its topography the court appointed Hariharan as an amicus curiae. 

The lawyer pointed out a substantial increase in the vegetation in this region following the court-ordered plantations.

We are also hoping that the lakes fill up once again because it'll take time. Last year we didn't have that much amount of rain. So we are waiting for the monsoons at the moment,” he added.

As far as the future goes, he hopes for the espousal of a similar vision towards environmental protection. 

I am yet to come across a judge with this kind of a drive for the environment— someone who feels and is sensitised by it. He understands the relation between the biotic and the abiotic world. So after a long time, we have a judge who thinks about the future generations. It's a kind a mission for him. And I can only hope that it gets passed on to somebody else with a similar passion,” Hariharan noted.

Insaaf Bagh is spread across 456 acres in Delhi's Southern Ridge and the court-ordered trees planted in this region are a result of costs imposed on parties.

The work of Mandeep Mittal, the Deputy Conservator of Forests (South Division), includes monitoring the conservation drives in the entire Southern Ridge, which envelops Insaaf Bagh. 

Mittal and his team also ensure that the court orders directing parties to plant trees in this region are complied with.

Southern Ridge (Asola)
Southern Ridge (Asola)

Our plantation sites are generally inside the forest, which is a reserved forest. Giving access to people is neither safe nor advisable. We ask them to deposit money with to a dedicated bank account," Mittal said.

The first plantations on the basis of court orders were carried out in 2018 in the Asola Bhatti Mines region in the Southern Ridge. Trees were planted on the land reclaimed by the Forest Department as a part of encroachment removal drive. 

Since considerable time has passed, the plantations have now taken shape of a forest. They're getting there. Earlier, it was just lands occupied by farmhouses. These trees have shown good growth and we take good care. Most of the trees have reached a height of more than 15 feet. Some are almost 20 feet tall. And one thing that we ensure when we do plantation is that we are conscious of the trees that we are planting,” Mittal revealed.

The department, therefore, does not undertake plantation of ornamental trees or those not indigenous to the geographical region.

Justice Waziri’s orders, he believes, set a “very good precedent” and other judges would take a leaf out of his book (no pun intended) going forward. 

It does bring in a lot of consciousness among the people. So a person who is depositing money for plantation of trees will always remember, and maybe it would lead to a change in attitude of the people, give them a slight nudge towards protecting and planting more trees. More importantly, if a lot of judges adopt this model, it would be beneficial for the society at large,” underscored Mittal.

Leaving an imprint

There were instances, lawyers say, where some parties showed initial reluctance to comply with the Court's orders, but gradually inculcated a keen interest in tree preservation.

Advocate MA Niyazi has witnessed the impact of the plantation orders in the areas he was given the charge of as one of the court commissioners.

Advocate M A Niyazi
Advocate M A Niyazi

After three, four years, when we went to the plantation areas and saw the same trees in 2021, they had grown 30 feet tall. One can assume the thousands and thousands of trees, which we had planted that were five or six feet, have now become 30, 40 feet tall,” said Niyazi.

Initially, he did not expect that the one case he was appointed court commissioner in, would add to the long tally of cases where similar directions would be passed.

We thought that it is just like one of the matters. The Court gave me this honour to be a court commissioner so I thought I would go and see what has been done. By the time more such matters started to come repeatedly, we realised it was like a mission. It wasn’t just a standalone case,” he said. 

Chadha, in his 20 years as a lawyer, had never seen someone take such an initiative.

The process is still still continuing and there are directions and I must tell you that even other courts, like that of Justice Jasmeet Singh, pass similar orders. And there have been other courts also who passed similar orders in the past right after this initiative by Justice Waziri,” he said.

A mindful approach

Justice Waziri's orders underline the importance of native and indigenous tree species. By encouraging the planting of trees that are well-suited to Delhi's climate and ecosystem, and roping in environmental experts, these directions ensure the long-term survival and ecological balance of the city's green spaces. 

This approach towards conservation fosters biodiversity, benefiting wildlife and enhancing the overall quality of urban life, experts says.

Dr Faiyaz Khudsar, environmental scientist and in charge of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, has shared his expertise with the Delhi High Court in several such matters in the past. He lauds how the judiciary has utilised expert opinions and issued strong directions towards environmental protection.

"And those directions were based on scientific reports by the experts. Courts brought experts into the picture and asked for their suggestions on it," he said.

He pointed out that courts have acted in favour of tree protection or maintaining ecological balance in cases related to road widening or building infrastructure, mandating compensatory plantation.

"Many High Court judgments brought it into reality by a rigorous follow up. There is no doubt that majority of the tasks in the field of environment have been brought into action through courts. This is the reality across the country," he underlined.

Khudsar, however, explained that tree plantation was one phenomenon and understanding an ecosystem and plantation through that ecosystem, was another. Implementing agencies should maintain ecological balance when following court orders, he cautioned.

Many of the plantation orders stress on seeking the guidance of Professor CR Babu, a name synonymous with preservation of trees in Delhi.

"Let 3,000 trees be planted....Advice and guidance of Dr C R Babu, Professor Emeritus, Head of Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), University of Delhi, be taken apropos the said plantation," a recent order of Justice Waziri directed the implementing agencies.

Babu has served as the faculty member of Delhi University’s (DU) Department of Botany for over 35 years and also served as the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor from 2000 to 2005.

He outlined that the court-ordered plantations contribute to the overall protection of the environment and provide ecological security.

"No doubt. They have contributed to the overall protection of the environment and provided ecological security. But we have parks and they're contributing substantially to the environment of quality and sustainability of environment in Delhi and courts also must ensure that they should be sustained or provided some kind of legal sanctity,” he said.

Justice Waziri's commitment to the cause of environmental conservation and his unique orders have set a precedent for how judicial activism can promote sustainability.

His visionary approach in combining legal acumen with ecological sensitivity has contributed to an increase of green cover in the national capital. 

The future may exhibit the far-reaching impact of his decisions, and inspire others to follow in his footsteps towards a greener and more sustainable environment.

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