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Above: Transplantation of trees needs expertise, especially root ball excavation/Photo: justdial.com

For the first time, a policy has suggested simple solutions for protecting or scientifically transplanting trees, thereby increasing the green cover in the national capital

By Debi Goenka

The draft policy of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) for the preservation and transplantation of trees affected by any project is a progressive and welcome step. For the first time in India, a government has proactively decided to end the practice of mindlessly felling trees for the construction of buildings, roads or other “developmental” projects.

The draft policy of February 27, 2019, for which suggestions and objections have been invited, is conceptually simple and breathtaking. To begin with, all trees need to be preserved and protected at the site itself. If this is not possible, 80 percent of the indigenous trees at the site need to be scientifically transplanted with the help of an authorised agency. The project proponent is also required to ensure that 80 percent of the transplanted trees survive for at least a year. In addition, 10 new trees should be planted for every tree that is felled or transplanted. And to ensure the survival of the new saplings, the draft policy stipulates that their height should not be less than eight feet. These saplings will also have to be geo-tagged.

The draft policy also contemplates the creation of a monitoring mechanism to ensure the survival of these trees. Local committees comprising citizen groups, professionals and experts will be constituted at the ward or assembly level. These committees will be required to carry out regular monitoring of all projects involving the planting or transplantation of more than 100 trees in their local areas. They will also have to certify the tree survival rate at the end of one year.

All details of tree plantation and transplantation projects will be maintained on the website of the Department of Forests & Wildlife (DFW). In addition, a dedicated tree transplantation cell will be set up in the DFW to prepare and regularly update the technical specifications for tree transplantation, to carry out empanelment of technical agencies, to define the benchmark tree survival rate, to carry out training and capacity building and to flag technical agencies who are unable to achieve the benchmark tree survival rate.

What is also welcome is that exotic and invasive species such as subabul, eucalyptus and prosopis have been excluded from this policy and do not need to be protected or transplanted. The GNCTD is also required to update this negative list from time to time.

Given the fact that Delhi is amongst the most polluted cities in the world, it makes a great deal of sense to ensure that every tree is protected and preserved in situ. Secondly, by making transplantation mandatory, this policy ensures that the transplanted tree continues to perform the much-needed function of generating oxygen and absorbing pollution.

Thirdly, the fact that the saplings that are being planted need to be more than eight feet high will ensure that most of these will survive if they are looked after. And by mandating that 10 saplings need to be planted for every tree felled or transplanted, the policy has ensured that the tree cover of Delhi will actually increase. And, more importantly, when it comes to transplantation and new plantations, first preference will be given to roadside plantation, thus ensuring that the trees are planted where they are most needed.

The shortcomings of this policy are that there is no mechanism to penalise the project proponent if this tree plantation and transplantation exercise is not carried out properly. The only penalty that is contemplated under the draft policy is that some portion of the payment being made to the technical agency that carried out the plantation would be deducted. This is one area where this draft policy needs to be strengthened.

There is no reason why this policy should not be adopted by other states and cities as well. Air pollution is impacting everyone’s life. Our greenery and tree cover are rapidly shrinking, and it is obvious that the existing government policy of compensatory afforestation that is required to be carried out under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, is just not working. The area under forests is also rapidly declining, both as a result of “development” projects and also because of unchecked encroachments under the Forest Rights Act.

Tree transplantation is an idea whose time has come. It may be expensive and time-consuming, but no price is too steep when it comes to safeguarding our health and improving air quality.

Transplantation of trees also requires a great deal of expertise. If the tree that needs to be transplanted is big, it would require large cranes and trailer trucks to remove and transport it. It would also require careful digging around the roots to ensure that they are not damaged. Great care would have to be taken to ensure that the “root ball” remains intact. In most cases, a large number of branches would also have to be trimmed. And at the transplantation site, the trunk would have to be propped up until its roots take hold and the tree is stabilised. It would obviously also take a while for new branches to grow and restore the tree to its former glory.

For small and medium-sized trees, there are now specialised tree transplantation trucks that can literally excavate the tree from the ground, and carry it to the new location for transplantation. There are already a number of agencies that are offering tree plantation services on a commercial basis.

Hopefully, we will see fewer and fewer trees being felled, and more and more of them being transplanted. Large trees offer a whole range of benefits that smaller saplings cannot. And as the smaller trees grow to their full height, we will continue to benefit from the oxygen being produced from the transplanted trees, thereby reducing the pollution load in the atmosphere.

—The writer is Executive Trustee, Conservation Action Trust

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