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Transplanting must not justify removing trees

The draft policy states that transplantation will be undertaken only when more than 10 trees need removal for a construction project.

delhi Updated: Mar 04, 2019 09:12 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
New Delhi
Struggling to save trees, a major victim of the city’s unending construction spree, the Delhi government last week announced a tree transplantation policy. (HT PHOTO)(HT Photo)

Struggling to save trees, a major victim of the city’s unending construction spree, the Delhi government last week proposed a tree transplantation policy.

The draft policy, to be finalised after taking comments from citizens, states that transplantation will be undertaken only when more than 10 trees need removal for a construction project. In such cases, at least 80% of local trees will be transplanted and resource-hungry exotic invasive species will be cut. The mandatory compensatory planting of 10 trees for every single one cut or transplanted will continue.

Mass transplantation could be costly at ₹15,000-30,000 per tree, depending on its size, and its success rate is yet unknown. More importantly, finding similar environmental conditions to transplant uprooted trees could be tricky. Delhi’s 1,484 square kilometres has as many as five micro-habitats with different soil types. For example, not all trees that grow near the Yamuna floodplains will survive if transplanted in the ridge.

Land is a premium resource in a crowded country and more so in Delhi. Even for compensatory plantation, authorities struggle to find land and often end up planting in already forested areas and close to the floodplain.

The draft policy promises to make room for transplantation along the arterial roads on “priority”.

But roadside trees are anyway the first to be axed for the widening of roads, construction of flyovers and laying new Metro lines.

Along NH-24, for instance, as many as 2,400 trees were cut to widen the stretch between Sarai Kale Khan and UP Gate and another 1,000 were transplanted near the Yamuna floodplain. While there is still no assessment of how many of these trees have survived, the end-to-end concretisation of the highway has altered the local ecology for good.

The proposed tree policy states that if the government is unable to find land for transplantation, it will be the responsibility of the project developer to find a patch. Before setting this cost-intensive scheme in stone, the policymakers could perhaps re-evaluate the compulsions for tree removal in the first place.

While planning urban development around existing trees may require a paradigm shift in mindset, our building agencies seem to remove trees just because it is convenient. “They have the flimsiest of reasons such as to allow heavy machinery to move freely,” says Prabhakar Rao of Kalpvriksha, an environmental action group. Or proposing to build underground parking lots at the cost of thousands of trees while redeveloping seven South Delhi neighbourhoods.

Successful transplantation is not easy. Experts say old trees that have large canopies and deep root system have a poor chance of surviving. “Most of the trees that are marked out for axing are old, some even 50 years or older,” says CR Babu, professor emeritus at the Centre for Environment Management of Degraded Ecosystems at Delhi University.

Transplanting trees involves heavy lopping of branches so they can be transported to the next site. While the young trees – those below 10 years – usually survive the transplantation shock, older trees stand a slim chance after heavy lopping, he says.

Transplantation also requires trimming of roots. But not all indigenous trees are good at regenerating their root systems, says Babu. While the younger trees of some species — Pongamia and Ficus — can tolerate transplantation, other common native species such as dhok/palash, siris, native wild kikar and arjun cannot.

If a tree loses its canopy, it loses the transpiration function — the process by which it carries moisture from the roots to the leaves — and dries out. A weak, underfed tree cannot perform its ecological function. “If the ability to do this is compromised in transplantation, the purpose of the tree is lost,” Babu adds.

The draft policy does mention on-site tree preservation, stating that no tree should be unnecessarily removed and those that can be saved from felling should be identified in the planning stage. But it is up to the construction agencies to appreciate that using what Rao calls “precision engineering” to avoid felling of trees is likely to be more cost effective than expensive transplantations.

Like compensatory plantation, transplantation is also an economic activity and, like all economic activities, has its own incentive. Like plantation, it can also sugar coat decisions to remove trees. Whether compensated ten-for-one or transplanted elsewhere, loss of its last surviving trees is irreversible for every Delhi neighbourhood. However, well-meaning, the draft policy’s real test will lie in its inbuilt ability to safeguard against such eventualities.

First Published: Mar 04, 2019 01:12 IST