Recently, people rose to the occasion and initiated a Chipko-like movement in Delhi to save 16,000 full-grown trees from being felled in South Delhi for housing redevelopment purposes. To quell the growing unrest, Minister of Urban Development, Hardeep Puri, wrote on Twitter: “Till the time I am a minister no tree will be cut and for every tree that is cut we will plant 10 trees. Green cover will go up by three times after re-development of seven colonies in South Delhi. Young activists are too fast to blame.”
Later, a press release from the ministry read: “Compensatory plantation of trees to be done in the ratio of 1:10 resulting in enhanced tree coverage area.” But the announcement did little to allay the fears of environmental activists, and rightly so.
Can a century-old Peepal tree be replaced by 10 saplings of some other species 10 km away from the site of the transgression? Most experts disagree —they say, a line of ornamental trees that will not survive once support is withdrawn.
Pradip Krishen, the author of Trees of Delhi, elaborates, “Compensatory afforestation is the fig-leaf that authorities use to cover up their naked assault on trees. We are always told that they will plant more trees than they’ll cut. This may well be true, but what is the quality of the trees they are planning to plant in the new areas? How many of them will survive? These are important questions that the authorities always avoid. The truth is that compensatory planting is nearly always done in poor, degraded soils in outlying villages — ‘rubbishy species’ are planted. And the numbers of trees planted per square metre is way too much, so 70 percent of them are guaranteed to not survive. Further, the Forest Department withdraws support to these trees after a year. The result is virtually nothing!”
In Delhi, over the decades, lakhs of full-grown trees were cut down by different agencies like Delhi Metro, PWD, DDA and the MCD with permission from the forest department.
According to sources in the forest department, more than 50,000 trees were cut in last six years in Delhi alone. The data obtained from Delhi Metro reveals that in the first phase 13,858 trees were cut and in second phase 17,997 trees were felled. For the third phase, permission for felling 16,001 trees has been given to the DMRC.
The agencies have no idea about the species felled and the varieties that will replace —they have little idea about the ecological value of the trees felled. So green it may be, but certainly of degraded value.
The callous and ignorant approach of compensatory plantation is clear while looking at the greenery of Yamuna floodplain. The trees are mostly Eucalyptus, which are not good for the ecosystem. Experts say that such compensatory planting has left an adverse effect on the ecosystem of Delhi. “Sadly, when the government proudly announces it has planted 4 million trees, it amounts to very little because they plant the wrong species!” says Krishen.
Environmentalist Vijay Dhasmana concurs. “In my opinion, compensatory plantation is a big joke. You can go to various sites in and around Delhi and see for yourself how this whole process comes to naught! Trees are planted at a distance of 2 metres to match the numbers required. What I fail to understand is when you cut trees from a certain part of the city and compensatory plantation is done 50 km away from that location, how is it compensatory? What you have destroyed cannot be compensated!”
Postdoctoral fellow at National Centre for Biological Science, Sandeep Pulla, too, makes similar observations. “Any role that trees play in their current location — such as provide habitats or food for plants and animals, regulate the micro-climate, improve the physical and mental health of people, decrease air pollution — will be lost. In the past, narrow, short-term thinking led to plantation of monocultures, often of non-native species, which has had negative impact on the ecosystem functioning. Trees take a long time to grow and when you consider the functioning of an entire ecosystem, it can take decades to centuries for it to fully recover. Plantations are only "compensatory" when examined through a narrow lens, like the amount of carbon they sequester.”