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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

For Delhi to survive, its trees must breathe free

The canopies, heavy with fresh green leaves, are not only a visual delight but they also shelter pedestrians from the blazing sun and the harsh winds.

delhi Updated: Jun 10, 2019 07:26 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
New Delhi
A tree on a footpath, near Vikas Minar in New Delhi.
A tree on a footpath, near Vikas Minar in New Delhi.(Raj K Raj/HT file)
         

Early summer is perhaps the best time to appreciate Delhi’s trees. The Amaltas blooming in yellow and the Gulmohar in red break the monotony of the city’s grey landscape. The canopies, heavy with fresh green leaves, are not only a visual delight but they also shelter pedestrians from the blazing sun and the harsh winds.

But, it is only when you look down do you realise what a tree has to battle to survive in Delhi. Many of them are choked by encroachment and concretisation, buried under construction debris and garbage, and bathed in paan and ghutka sprays.

Six years ago, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned concretisation around the base of a tree.

Circulars were issued to government agencies to leave a one-metre space around the tree unpaved so that its roots could breathe.

On May 16, HT published a report on how trees were being choked by the cemented base at several locations in Delhi. In all cases, the violators were the government agencies.

While the one-metre rule is followed on arterial roads, there are few checks on internal roads, and in residential neighbourhoods. Here, many trees are sealed with cement tiles so that the paved spaces can be used for parking vehicles. In some other cases, trees are encased within boundary walls.

Even on the stretches where the NGT order is being followed, it is often more in letter than in spirit. Often, it is mere tokenism as the unpaved space maintained around trees in many places is much less than what the rules stipulate. Moreover, trees are living beings and their girth increases as they grow. One metre should be the bare minimum requirement, but the agencies seem to grudge even that. The rules further require that no construction or repairing work is done at least within one metre radius of the trunk of trees, debris should be removed immediately after civil works, and soil around trees be replenished. Not many oblige.

Even if there may not be any visible debris, in many places the soil around the trees is hardened with cement dust. In fact, much of Delhi’s ‘earth’ is now made of construction dust and building material left behind from the last project. If you pick up a fistful, you’ll see how it slips out of your hand.

Unsurprisingly, many of our street trees do not have any undergrowth — crucial for serving as a dust trap, absorbing rainwater and hosting larvae of insects, which, by the way, is the best food for birds. Worse, vehicle movement and overflowing wastewater have such compacting effect on the topsoil that nutrients and water do not reach the roots. It is a miracle that Delhi’s trees are still standing.

“The resilience of trees is tested in the direst of situations,” wrote Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli in their book Cities and Canopies. Citing the impact of the Bhopal gas tragedy, India’s biggest industrial disaster, on that city’s trees, they write how in two months even the worst affected peepul and neem trees, which had completely lost leaves following the gas leak, sprung out fresh ones.

Trees are a city’s best health insurance. They fight atmospheric pollution and also double up as noise barriers, both important to a city with 10 million vehicles. Trees also soak up stormwater and replenish aquifers, both crucial for a city that suffers waterlogging after every shower even as its water table sinks to precarious lows.

On paper, harming a tree attracts a prison term of up to one year or a fine of up to ₹1,000 or both. In addition, the NGT order provisions a penalty of ₹10,000 on the civic agency that violates its order. But as forest officials told HT, the fines are rarely enforced.

Street trees are anyway the first to be axed for the widening of roads, construction of flyovers and Metro lines. The forest department data show that between 2005 and February 2018, the government allowed felling of 112,169 trees. Citizens are now battling to save at least 14,000 trees in seven Delhi neighbourhoods.

The compensatory plantation is a lame consolation for squandering legacies of decades. Even as Delhi sets another lofty target of planting millions of saplings in the upcoming mega-drive this monsoon, an official admitted that the new plants do not grow into robust trees like before because of soil degradation and the plummeting water table. That underlines the urgency of safeguarding the standing roadside trees against choking and decay. They are waiting for a medical check-up.

First Published: May 27, 2019 02:41 IST

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