The city's first ever tree survey conducted by local residents in the leafy neighbourhood of south Delhi's Sarvodaya Enclave had an unexpected fallout.
Nails, iron rods and hooks, weighing 3.5 kilograms, were removed from more than 100 roadside trees last week.
Some of these trees were impaled with hooks that supported washing lines. Others had metal rods skewered through them for demarcating parking space. Most nails were hammered in for hanging hoardings, banners and even power points to charge mobile phones. Almost half of the trees were heavily lopped and 40% completely choked due to concrete tiling around them.
With more than 20% forest cover, Delhi is one of the greenest cities of India. But the green cover is determined from satellite imagery, which does not reveal how much of it is actually contributed by thickets of thorny shrubs. It does not tell us the health of the few remaining trees either.
The latest records of the Forest Survey of India, however, confirm that Delhi's canopy has thinned, thanks to the massive civil construction across the city. At least, 200 full-grown trees anyway die every year because of storms, water scarcity, excessive concretisation, disease and old age. A large number of New Delhi's neglected avenue trees are 80-100 years old, planted at the time the British built the Capital. In many cities across the world, trees of such vintage are treated like historic buildings.
Trees sustain a city like nothing else can. They deal with atmospheric pollution, a dire problem in Delhi that houses seven million vehicles. A single tree releases enough oxygen to sustain two people. Urban forests reduce public costs for storm water management, groundwater replenishment and flood control. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 100 mature trees can reduce runoff caused by rainfall by up to 1,00,000 gallons.
The cooling effect of a healthy tree is equivalent to 10 standard domestic air-conditioners operating 20 hours a day. According to NASA, when the suburban development in Atlanta, known as a city in a forest, ate up 3,80,000 acres of trees between 1973 and 1992, temperatures climbed 5-8 degrees compared to the surrounding countryside. Trees also absorb sound. According to the New Jersey Forest Service, a well-planted group of trees can reduce noise pollution by up to 10 decibels.
Yet, we are still to conduct any impact assessment of the tree cover in Delhi. The Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, notified in 1994, mandated a tree count. Almost a decade later, the New Delhi Municipal Council did conduct a census in 2005-06 and also got itself a tree ambulance, the only such facility in Delhi. But the rest of the city is still waiting. Harming a tree attracts jail term of up to one year or a fine of up to Rs 1,000 or both. It is mandatory to leave 6 x 6 feet open space around each tree while paving footpaths. While these laws and rules are rarely enforced, a huge number of trees face the axe to accommodate development projects. For example, the construction of the next 100 kilometres of Metro will mean felling another 14,700 trees.
Till now, for every one tree felled, 10 were planted, mostly in the outskirts of the city. Since non-forest land is getting sparse, the Delhi Development Authority has proposed compensatory plantation in the city forests and on rocky terrains. But saplings cannot compensate for the loss of full-grown trees and plantations inside natural forests defeats its very purpose.
Worse, the Centre has asked the Delhi government to reduce the number of trees to be planted for each tree felled from the standard 10 to three or four. Given that saplings have a very low survival rate, the authorities may as well spare us the formality and altogether abandon compensatory afforestation.