The writer brings to you an initiative that involves Delhi’s youth to save its indigenous tree species. It has resulted in the creation of the city’s first-of-a-kind urban mini forest

Ask a Mumbaikar how her city is different from your Delhi. Bollywood aside, the standard response would most likely be the National Capital’s green cover. The Ridge apart, administrative choices like that of the Delhi Government’s to plant 50,000 saplings across the city during the otherwise disastrous Commonwealth Games of 2010, can add a dash of pride in you at this point. But hold on I say. To ask yourself, as a concerned Delhiite, these pointed questions: how many of these trees have been planted keeping the topography and history of your city’s trees in mind? Are indigenous species really critical to a terrain? Do trees contribute to the environment only by looking pretty?

“These are vital questions because they are directly related to the type of soil that Delhi has and its health. We are increasingly seeing imported ornamental trees and shrubs being planted across the city to beautify it without judging how much pressure we are actually putting on the soil to adapt to it,” points out a young city green activist Deeksha Bhatia. Worse, some portions of Delhi have seen the same species planted in a row — again to look orderly and therefore pretty — which Deeksha says, “is not good for the life of the soil as it needs variety to thrive, like what you see in a natural forest.”

Sunny Verma, her colleague at Swechha, a young NGO that has been mobilising Delhi’s youth to address various issues including that of its environment, points at the bigger loss the city is coming upon through the process — that of gradual disappearance of its native species.

Deeksha and Sunny should know better for this past week, Swechha volunteers combed though Delhi’s nurseries — both Government-owned and private ones including fêted names like the Sundar Nagar Nursery — looking for its native trees only to be largely disappointed. The hunt is part of an annual initiative, Monsoon Wooding, which Swechha has been undertaking for some years now between July and September. This year, as Sunny says, “We thought of doing something novel and came up with the idea of creating Delhi’s first urban mini forest with only its indigenous trees.”

Deeksha made a list of 62 species. They consulted tree experts like Pradeep Krishen who warned them about the difficulty in finding them in Delhi. “He told us, ‘you might find some trees which are not native to Delhi but have adapted to it’. We still went ahead, about 45-50 of our volunteers from different Delhi colleges visited many nurseries; each nursery could give us the same 6-7 species and not more,” says Deeksha. Sunny adds, “Finally, after a lot of searching, we managed to gather 32 local species. The Forest Department organises plantation drives in the city but they usually do not go beyond a certain species. Since there is no demand for them, there is no supply.” Deeksha states, “Comparatively, we got the largest number of species from the Chirag Delhi nursery. At the Sunder Nagar nursery, we wanted saplings of local species but they had only big trees and that too for a big sum.”

With 300 saplings of 34 species finally arranged, they approached the next hurdle — having technical expertise to guide them right. After some research came on board Afforestt, a Bangalore-based organisation which has planted 33,000 trees so far by setting up mini forests in cities like Indore and Bangalore. They follow a method devised by renowned Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki. “This method is primarily for urban spaces and has been adopted worldwide. The method uses organic material like husk, straw, bamboo, coco peat and vermi-compost. It includes mixing of top soil with more than 2000 kgs of biomass, planting, watering, mulching (laying out wheat straw on the soil) and securing the plants with sticks, pegs and ropes,” explains Sunny.

The next challenge was to look for land. “The method needs not a strip of land but a piece of about 1000 square feet. We approached RWAs and institutions and finally St. Mary’s School, Dwarka, came on board. It has a huge patch of land on which it has just started a botanical garden. They gave it to us to turn it into a mini forest of indigenous trees,” relates Sunny. A corporate house, KHD, supported the initiative with cash and the team of volunteers scurried about to collect the required material.

Volunteers Rahul and Ankur relate, “We went to various places, Azadpur Mandi, goshalas, etc. to collect the stuff.” Five truckloads of material reached the site along with the volunteers on a particularly rainy day. Says Sunny, “For a truck of straws, we had to pay Rs. 30,000 which we might have got for free outside Delhi. As the demand for these materials is less here, they cost more.”

Prior to the day of plantation, it engaged a land digging machine. “This was the only thing we couldn’t do ourselves. Rest was doable. We got help from the school including its eco club, volunteers took turns, each one, despite the downpour, worked for straight 6-7 hours to complete plantation of the saplings which follow a certain arrangement so that the forest grows like a natural one,” adds Deeksha. “The method ensures that in about three years’ time,” adds Sunny, “it will be so dense that you just can’t walk through it.”

Volunteers Utsav and Krithika recount their experience, “We always wanted to contribute, didn’t know how. Swechha gave us a path; there were wasps around, mosquito bites, but we didn’t mind it.” Sunny and Deeksha have words of praise for the St. Mary’s eco club. “They are maintaining a calendar right now, on when to water the plants, measuring their growth each month, etc.”

Swechha is keen on replicating this concept in other parts of Delhi “as unlike many other urban spaces, the city has a lot of free land” but underlines, “It will never be an enterprise, we will never hire people to do it. It will always have a campaign feel to it, will always involve youth and give them a sense of responsibility towards a city they call their own.”

(To get involved as a green volunteer with Swechha, write to swechhaindia@gmail.com)