Deepika Sarma, Assistant Editor, Grist Media.
Tree planting. Everyone does it. Schools do it. MNCs do it. Widows and mourning relatives do it. Even Nitin Gadkari does it. Last week, the Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari announced that he had plans to plant 200 crore trees along 1 lakh km of National Highway.Indians frequently combine this anodyne pursuit with another one – record breaking. In 2012, 9,814 volunteers planted 99,103 saplings of Ladakhi willow in an hour, breaking the previous record (66,000 done on the occasion of a tycoon’s birthday in Philippines, in case you wondered). We also hold the Guinness Book record for the most number of trees planted in a day by a team, but Pakistan has the one for the most number of trees planted by an individual in a day. Noble intentions and tree planting always seem to go together.
Sadly, you might want to stop doing it. Experts will tell you that if you really do love the environment, you should take a step back before you lower that next sapling into the ground. TheNational Forest Policy (1988) aims to have at least one-third of the country’s total land area under forest or tree cover, but planting trees without careful consideration can in fact do more harm than good. Time for some introspection (or intreespection, as you will).
What tree am I planting?
The aforementioned Ladakhi willow proved a sensible choice in that particular instance – the roots of these willows bind the soil and prevent erosion. But if the green baby you are inserting into the ground is not native to your region, there’s every possibility they will catch diseases and be zapped by the weather in a way that native trees won’t. They may also require more water and other resources for their maintenance than a city may not be able to afford. Non-native trees can also be harmful to native flora – eucalyptus, which is widely planted in India, strips the soil of moisture and nutrients and renders the soil in the area infertile. They can also be eye-poppingly expensive, costing huge amounts of public money. The government of Punjab, for instance, has been on a spree to plant date palms in the last few years; Amritsar has date palms lining the road from the city to the airport. While some claim the trees cost Rs 12,000 each, members of Amritsar-based NGO Mission Aagaaz claim they cost Rs 20,000 each. “We have filed an RTI application so we can have this on record,” says G Gurbhej, the organization’s secretary.
Is my tree going to kill someone?
You have romantic notions of creating a shady canopy for your unborn grandchildren and decide to plant Rain trees or Silver Oaks. But the roots of giant, sprawling trees in cramped urban spaces may damage compound walls, building foundations and water and sewage pipelines. Or in the monsoon, falling trees and branches can be deadly for pedestrians and motorists on the street. Bangalore’s municipal body, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), has decided to stop planting Gulmohars in the city as it believes they’re a nuisance, particularly because of falling branches when it rains.
Why am I stuck on flowers?
Vinay Sreenivasa, an activist with Hasiru-Usiru – a network of organizations and individuals in Bangalore concerned about protecting equitable access to public spaces – believes that now and then, it’s nice to have some ornamental trees such as Tabebuia, which dot Bangalore with showers of pink flowers every spring, or Rain and Gulmohar trees that provide the city with shade. But he cautions that it’s also important to have varied species, and not have streets lined only with avenue or ornamental trees. “We need to consider what purpose we want a tree to serve in a particular area, and select the species and location accordingly. Why aren’t we planting more fruit trees, given the state of our food security?”
Santhosh George of WePlant India, which promotes the planting of indigenous, location-specific fruit trees in public places, believes planting fruit trees will enhance biodiversity and fight malnourishment. “In northern India, trees such as mango, jamun, guava, pomegranate and gooseberry grow well, while in the south, it’s mulberry and papaya. In northeast India, we promote the planting of oranges, plums, and sometimes apples, because they do well there.”
Where am I sticking my sapling?
Sreenivasa says: “It’s also important to consider where trees are being planted. It isn’t enough to plant trees in schools or army campuses. It’s vital to have trees along roads to provide shade and improve air quality. The BBMP tends to focus on areas in the outskirts, but it’s the city center that also needs more trees.”
In fact, in cramped portions of cities where planting trees may not be an option, rooftops gardens and green walls are a great alternative, says Mumbai-based activist and research fellow at Observer Research Foundation Rishi Aggarwal. There’s Eat Your Street in Bangalore, which aims to transform neglected public spaces into thriving, edible gardens with low-maintenance plants such as ragi or horse gram. Or groups like Grow Your Own Veggies in Chennai or Urban Leaves in Mumbai, which provide spaces for urban farming enthusiasts to connect. There are ways to work around limitations of space, Uday Acharya, trustee of the Vidya Varidhi Trust, points out: “You can even have pots on your window sill.”
Do I think a planted tree is a cure for everything?
The website Treesforfree.org urges people to plant trees, encouraging them to “Become global cool”. “So you use a motor vehicle and electrical appliances that are responsible for causing global warming?” reads it website. “No problem. Just plant trees that will absorb the greenhouse gases you’re responsible for.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Aggarwal says he actually discourages people from planting trees. “People are happy to keep using cars, air conditioners and smartphones even if means chunks of forest in the Amazon will go missing, but they’ll plant saplings anyway. It reflects an inherent intellectual laziness.”
So now I should hate trees?
Absolutely not. Tree planting is necessary and very doable. But to really make a difference, it’s necessary to take responsibility for educating oneself about trees. Experts across the board say the key focus has to be maintaining trees and keeping survival rates high – making sure their roots have enough space to grow, identifying and removing dead or infected branches, and making sure they have enough water. “Saplings also need adequate protection such as fencing, to keep away cattle,” says Shubhendu Sharma, founder-director of Afforestt, a company that creates native forests.
Don’t go chasing that Guinness
R Seshadri of Hasiru Usiru says it’s important to have smaller goals. “Instead of 3,000 trees, think 300. Make sure you plant the right species of saplings, water them and maintain them.” The BBMP, he points out, claims to have planted 10.5 lakh saplings in the last 6 years. “We did a rapid census in several wards, and found that in many instances, the success rate was only about 15 percent. It’s important to have a good survival rate.” Last heard, the Karnataka High Court ordered the BBMP todraw up an action plan to ensure accountability and maintenance of trees that it claimed to have planted since 2007.
Who will answer my questions about trees?
Aggarwal believes having a good institutional mechanism in cities for tree planting is vital. “Ideally the MCGM [Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai] shouldn’t be doing the planting; they should have detailed GIS maps pointing out underground cables and pipelines across the city, indicating to people where it is safe to plant trees.” R. Seshadri, botanist and member of Hasiru-Usiru, also believes an institutional mechanism is necessary, and rues that municipal bodies and forest departments do not have have experts trained in horticulture – ones who will be able to give advice on which species to pick, how to plant them and even whether you should plant them at all. “They need to coordinate with scientific bodies and institutions who can advise them on these matters,” he says.
Trees need policy, not just manure.
“We urgently need a tree policy for Bangalore,” says Sreenivasa, a plea activists in other cities echo. Bangalore owes much of its tree cover to SG Neginhal, who as a forest officer in the 1980s planted 15 lakh saplings of over 150 species in Bangalore between 1982 and 1987, with a high survival rate. His tree-planting drive is said to have inspired the inclusion of Urban Forestry in subsequent Five Year Plans.
George says that Gadkari’s move to plant trees along national highways is welcome, but he has a request to the government: before varieties such as eucalyptus are planted along our highways, how about formulating a plan to plant indigenous fruit trees?