Why Tree Transplantation Can't Make Up For Loss Of Green Cover
With poor transplanting methods and shoddy aftercare, trees stand a poor chance of survival, show examples from across India
Mumbai: On August 16, the Delhi Government gave permission to the National Highway Authority of India to axe 6,600 trees to build a third ring road for the capital city on the condition that 4,365 of these would be transplanted.
Up to 40 big projects in New Delhi have been approved on the condition of tree transplantation, including the Central Vista Project which could require a large number of trees to be felled. The Delhi Government's Tree Transplantation Policy of December 2020 requires building agencies to transplant 80% of the trees they uproot.
Will tree transplantation, the process of replanting uprooted trees elsewhere as a measure to counter deforestation, be effective in Delhi, which stands to lose large green tracts to various projects? Unlikely, environmentalists say, pointing to the many big projects in India where tree transplantation failed. Here are some examples:
- Up to 2,141 trees in 2017 were felled in Aarey Colony, an urban forest referred to as Mumbai's last green lung, to make way for the Mumbai Metro 3 project linking the southern end of the city to its western suburbs. The Bombay High court appointed a fact-finding team in 2019 to inspect the transplanted trees and reportedly found that over 60% of them had died.
- The metro line constructed to connect north and south Nagpur led to the transplantation of 21 trees in 2019. None of these survived. Despite this failure, the city has planned infrastructure projects like the Rs 1,053-crore InterModal Station to integrate road, rail and metro terminals but would end up displacing 1,940 trees.
Urban projects planned with little thought for their environmental impact have left Indian cities with depleted tree cover, examples across India show: Nagpur, once one of Indian greenest cities, has lost over or 40 sq km of its green cover to infrastructural projects between 1999 and 2018--reducing its green cover from 31% of the city's area to 21%--as per a 2019 study. Nearly 94% of Mumbai has been concretised over 40 years and the metropolis has only one tree for every four persons, according to the last BMC Tree Census in 2018. Bengaluru, with an estimated 1.47 million trees (2013 figures), has 0.166 trees per person. The ideal tree-human ratio is 8:1.
The 2019 India State of Forest Report revealed that India's total tree cover is 95,027 sq km, just 2.89% of its geographical area.
Tree transplantation has not been effective in India because there is no uniform process and the penalty for failure is not enough of a deterrent, experts say. "The problem is not that transplantation is bad, but [that] the authorities who talk about transplantation are rarely serious about the survival of the trees," said Sanjiv Valsan of Rewilding Aarey, an activist group that seeks to reforest the Aarey area of Mumbai with native trees. "And there is no penalty for a dead tree."
For example, the Nagpur municipal corporation charges project authorities a security deposit of Rs 5,500 for each tree to be transplanted but this has never worked as a deterrent, said Kaustav Chatterjee, an environmentalist at Green Vigil, a city-based non-profit. "Project officials prefer to forgo the deposit than invest money in tree care and scientific transplantation," he said.
Widespread felling though every tree supports 30 species
In January 2020, then Chief Justice S.A. Bobde asked a committee of experts to evaluate the loss of trees to the environment. The panel, while evaluating, estimated the economic value of a tree at Rs 74,500 multiplied by its age. Heritage trees with a lifespan of over 100 years could thus be valued at more than Rs 1 crore. "Upon adding the costs of micronutrients and compost, living trees will more often than not outweigh the benefit of most of the projects they are felled for," the committee noted.
Apart from filtering air pollutants, fighting erosion, providing oxygen and recharging groundwater, trees support all forms of life. A single tree supports as many as 30 species, said Sasirekha Sureshkumar, a botanist and a former member of the expert panel set up by the Bombay Municipal Corporation's Tree Authority. "We fail to understand what a single tree is worth and the ecology it supports," she said.
Plantation expert Prachi Mahurkar undertook a habitat survey of over 7,000 trees spread across 446 acres of Nagpur's Ajni Vann, one of the few remaining green patches in the city and a thriving biodiversity habitat, and found 56 different species of trees, of which 39 are native species with an average age of 40 years. Ajni Vann is now set to be the site of the InterModal Station in Nagpur.
The BMC's Tree Authority has reportedly sanctioned the felling of 373 trees, of which 332 are to be transplanted, for the building of a coastal road. Another 1,719 trees are to be cut, and 1,166 transplanted for the widening of the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road and the construction of Metro corridors.
Neglect killed 60% of transplanted trees
In 2017, when the protests against the felling of 2,141 trees in Aarey forests to build Metro 3 in Mumbai gathered pace, social media was abuzz with arguments like "why cut down trees when you can transplant them elsewhere?" As many as 1,072 trees were approved for transplantation and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) budgeted Rs 5.36 crore for transplanting them, at the rate of Rs 50,000 per tree.
But, a Bombay High Court-appointed committee concluded in a 2019 report that over 60% of trees transplanted for the Metro 3 project had died. It inspected 1,462 fully grown trees transplanted since 2017; of these, 759 were either dead or dying. The report traced this to inadequate tree care and lack of scientific transplanting methods.
Zoru Bhathena, environmental activist and petitioner in the case, who accompanied the High Court committee in site visits, alleged that the MMRCL "lies through its teeth". "They also claimed in the court that they have hired an arborist (a person trained in the science of planting, caring and maintaining trees) for Rs 21 lakh a month," he said, adding that no such arborist had been appointed. We emailed MMRCL on September 16, for a comment on the allegations. We will update the story when we receive a response.
Aarey activist Valsan alleged that contractors use transplantation projects to make money on the side. During the Mumbai Metro 3 project, he said he noticed contractors uprooting transplanted trees to accommodate new ones. "They get paid for every tree that comes in. Plus, there is money to be made out of selling wood," he said.
No viability study
Transplantation has not been successful in other cities either.
In Delhi, the Dwarka expressway was proposed in 2016 to connect the south-west side of Delhi to neighbouring Gurugram. To make way for this, 6,500 trees had to be felled over two years on the condition that 3,500 would be transplanted. But, the permission for transplantation had been given without estimating its viability, alleged the Society for Promotion of Culture, Heritage, Environment, Traditions and Promotion of National Awareness (SP-CHETNA), a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, in a plea to the National Green Tribunal in 2019. The tribunal directed the Delhi forest department to monitor the survival of transplanted trees.
In connection with the same project, Delhi's environment minister Gopal Rai was reported to have said that a large number of trees were transplanted under the project, and conceded that "many of them have not survived", as they could not be watered "for several months because of Covid".
Similarly, for the first stretch of the Bengaluru metro, which connected the east and west corridors of the city, the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation had reportedly cut 1,428 trees. Of the 10 trees transplanted as an experiment, only three survived.
Guidelines outlined by countries such as the UK and Hong Kong--and research bodies--talk of a systematic approach wherein trees must be separated into those that do well in transplantation and those that do not. The process they mandate involves digging up trees to isolate their root balls and lopping off the branches leaving only a small shoot for revival. Trees also need to be 'acclimatised' by using their original soil during transplantation and regular monitoring is a must for the first 12 months to ensure hydration.
However, there are no procedures in place for tree transplantations in India and the work is left largely to construction agencies and contractors. The Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, for instance, talks of "transplanting trees necessitated by the construction of new roads or widening existing roads" but makes no mention of any process.
The Karnataka High Court, while hearing a public interest litigation filed by the NGO Bangalore Environment Trust (BET) against indiscriminate tree felling by BMRCL, constituted a panel to select sites for transplantation and ordered separate budgets for transplantation and aftercare. But the orders were not codified to apply uniformly across projects in the state.
Under the Delhi Tree Transplantation policy, a committee of experts empanels agencies to undertake transplantation. C.R. Babu, a professor at Delhi University's School for Environment Studies, is a member of this committee. "We ensure that transplantation is done only when there is no option," he said. "For all kinds of projects, these empanelled agencies follow technical specifications for tree transplantation."
Botanist Sasirekha Sureshkumar, who resigned in 2019 as a member of the expert panel at BMC's Tree Authority, said a report had been submitted identifying trees that could or could not be safely transplanted for the Metro 3 project. "It was not accepted by the authorities", she said.
While native trees have the best success rate in transplantation, experts claimed that non-native exotic trees are transplanted the most. "Invasive species often overpower native species, changing the soil composition and microbial balance," said Sureshkumar. A 2011 research paper revealed that India had lost 80% of its native forest cover to invasive exotics. "This promotes an imbalance in nature," she said.
Transplantation not a solution
Green activists no longer support transplantation as a solution for large-scale tree felling.
"Nothing justifies the felling of a tree that has been standing there for 50-60 years. It will take that much longer for a sapling to establish itself and re-create its habitat," said Neema Pathak Broome of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group.
Activist Valsan, who has been transplanting trees uprooted by cyclones in Mumbai, is critical of how the authorities approach the process: "The way these authorities have been transplanting, it is like they are killing a tree in instalments, not in one shot."
Anasuya Chhabrani, an activist with Paryavaran Prerna Vidharbha that advocates for sustainable development, said she and her fellow activists have held several protests, filed petitions and court cases against the Rs 1,053 crore Intermodal Station that will fell trees in Nagpur's Ajni Vann. Soon after, in November 2020, the National Highways Authority of India, the project developer of the InterModal Station's Phase 1, announced that the 1,940 trees to be felled for the project would be transplanted. But activists are against this.
"A few months ago [during the pandemic surge] we were fighting for oxygen, now we are cutting those sources of oxygen, what have we learned?" said Chhabrani.
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