From doubts over how it will be implemented to questions about long-term ecological impact, experts have raised concerns over the Delhi government’s proposed tree transplantation policy, which will make it mandatory to transplant 80% of the indigenous trees affected in a construction project.
Last summer, when Delhiites took to the streets to protest against large-scale felling of trees for the construction of several Central government staff housing projects, the process for obtaining permission to cut trees came under public scrutiny.
The projects for redevelopment of housing colonies, including in Sarojini Nagar and Netaji Nagar, had been given approval to cut thousands of trees by the Delhi Environment and Forest Department, with the condition that the agencies involved would plant 10 times as many saplings as compensation, which is the norm.
The protests ended after the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for the redevelopment projects, announced in June 2018 that it would re-work the plans in order to save as many trees as possible.
Now, the issue is back in the news with the Delhi government announcing a draft policy for tree transplantation. In his Budget 2019-20 speech on February 26, Delhi Finance Minister Manish Sisodia said that while 20% of the trees could be cut, 80% of the trees affected in a project would have to be transplanted.
“This [draft policy] is a tough but very important step. Delhi is the first State in the country where this stringent rule will be implemented,” he had said
Till March 15, the forest department is taking suggestions from the public on the draft policy, after which it will be finalised.
According to the draft, an agency or individual responsible for a project will have to transplant 80% of the non-exotic trees from the construction site, and also carry out compensatory plantation — planting 10 trees for every one tree affected — for 100% of the trees that will be moved or felled.
While agreeing that maintaining and improving greenery in Delhi is vital in the fight against rising pollution levels, experts have raised concerns about the practical implementation of the policy.
“It is very difficult to transplant a tree. Many native and deep-rooted trees will not tolerate transplantation. Even if you can transport an entire tree, with the intact canopy and root system, where is the land in Delhi for that? Also, you will need specially manufactured trucks for it,” said C.R. Babu, professor emeritus at the Centre for Environment Management of Degraded Ecosystems at Delhi University.
Prof. Babu said that the time and money required to transplant a tree was more than what is needed to cut a tree and carry out compensatory plantation.
Before transplanting a tree, depending on the age and size, it can take up to a month or two to prepare since it involves digging and preserving the root system, said Prof. Babu. It can take up to a year to determine whether the tree has survived, according to the draft policy.
Prof. Babu said that most tree transplantation that takes place now involves lopping off the big branches of the tree. This, he said, reduces the ecological benefit.
“A tree without its canopy will have no ecological function. Without its large canopy, the tree will not be able to filter air, or add moisture to the air or recharge groundwater, like it can with a canopy of leaves,” he said.
According to experts, while it can take around ₹10,000 to ₹30,000 to cut trees for certain projects, transplantation of a tree — depending on its age — can cost about ₹1 lakh. The cost also varies depending on the size of the tree.
‘What gives policy legal teeth?’
Environmentalist and lawyer Aditya N. Prasad, who has taken up cases regarding preservation of trees, raised concerns about how the policy would be implemented. “What gives the policy legal teeth? Under what law will they prosecute someone if they do not carry out the transplantation? Apart from that, the forest department has admitted in court that it lacks staff. Without staff and equipment, how will it verify on the ground if transplantation has taken place,” he asked.
According to the draft policy, the government will empanel technical agencies to carry out the transplantation after making a feasibility report.
The applicant for tree-cutting permission will have to choose from the empanelled agencies, which will be responsible for maintenance for a year, after which the land-owning agency will take over. This, Mr. Prasad, said would lead to outsourcing of the government’s responsibility.
Lack of oversight
The track record of various government agencies when it comes to monitoring the compensatory plantation has not been too good.
According to the status report of the Outcome Budget 2018-19 of the Delhi government till December 31, 2018, third-party evaluation of the plantation drives of the forest department was to be done in 20 sites, but none of the sites had been evaluated.
Despite zero sites being evaluated, the status report said there had been 75% survival of the saplings.
“The forest department does not really know the status of its plantation, so how can the target of 80% survival rate for transplanted trees be set,” asked Mr. Prasad.
A senior official of the forest department said not all trees can be transplanted and that it would take an extreme summer and winter each to judge whether a transplanted tree survives or not.
The official added that the comments received from all agencies and stakeholders on the proposed policy would be compiled after March 15 and presented to the government for a decision.
When trees are cut for a construction project, the agency responsible has to plant 10 times as many saplings to compensate for the felled trees, apart from trying to transplant as many as possible
Under the Delhi government's transplantation policy, 80% of the non-exotic trees that have to be removed for a project will have to be transplanted and compensatory plantation of 10 times has to be done for 100% trees affected
Features of the draft policy
- 80% of the trees transplanted should survive after a year
- For compensatory plantation, trees or saplings have to be at least eight feet in height and geo-tagged
- Ward or Assembly constituency-level committees to be set up for monitoring plantation
- No transplantation required in case of projects where 10 or fewer trees are affected
Source: Draft tree transplantation policy of Department of Forests and Wildlife