State of the Trees
Lately, the plight of trees has taken up considerable newsprint and airtime for all the wrong reasons. Be it illegal felling, organised cutting to accommodate development pressures of road and rail expansion, building memorial parks or falling to rains, trees are no less a story of eroding national wealth. What is of bigger concern though is the maintenance of existing green cover and longevity of transplanted trees, a consolatory justification for razing them in the first place. Sadly, we are not as good at giving back what we take from nature. Neither have we understood that destruction is intricately related to nurturing renewal and revival. In our country, most trees perish within months of transplanting. For example, in Mumbai 153 coconut trees were uprooted from Marine Drive in 2005 and transplanted at Oval Maidan, Churchgate. Today all of them have withered away to oblivion. The municipal authorities claim to have transplanted 24,821 trees since 2001 but no one knows their present status. On the other hand, they have permitted cutting of 6,000-10,000 trees annually on an average without assessing if the former deficit has been made up.
The West faces similar development pressures of road, rail, airport and city expansions. There is an equal need for setting up new industries and other infrastructural projects. But unlike us, they don’t go about mindlessly hacking trees. They seek the help of arborists in proper transplantation. It is time that our conservation policies now factor in renewal as a key tool to save the planet.
The first change is of mindset, one that realises trees as economic wealth. In the US alone, landscaping, especially with trees, can increase property values by as much as 20 per cent and reduce air conditioning costs by up to 50 per cent (source: The US Department of Agriculture and American Public Power Association). This mindset explains the relevance of people like Luke Geddes, who visits India for his many trans-Himalayan adventure trips but is a “tree surgeon” in the UK. Geddes enlightens us on this modern terminology of an arborist’s work. “Largely it is the practice of repairing damaged trees to restore their appearance, arresting disease, large-scale pruning and providing proper support when needed, particularly during relocation and transplanting.” According to professionals like him, pruning should only be done with a specific purpose in mind. Every cut is a wound and every leaf lost is removal of some photosynthetic potential. Proper pruning can be helpful in many ways but should always be done with the minimum amount of live tissue removed. He explains how injured or diseased parts are removed with care and caution, even taking into consideration small cavities in the bark which may harbour injurious fungi and insects. It’s the surgeon’s job to treat the ailing surfaces with antiseptics and healing aids. After which the cavity may be filled with some special material. Sounds like a routine visit to your dentist but it does open up a whole new perspective for saving trees in our cities. It is a way of bridging urbanisation with the environment.
Trees in urban landscapes are often subject to widespread human and natural disturbances, both above and below the ground and in need of solutions provided by arborists. There are a whole lot of differences between the techniques and practices of professional arborists and those without adequate training who simply “trim trees.” Some practices of untrained tree workers are considered unacceptable by modern arboriculture standards. One example of an “unacceptable” practice is called “topping”, “lopping” or “hat racking”, where entire tops of trees or main stems are cut off, causing instability to the tree. This is one of the many reasons why trees go down whenever there is a bit of squall in our cities.
In the course of digging and road-widening, the roots tend to get chopped off. Not only does that make the tree unstable, it eventually kills it. MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) and RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) routinely chop off whole branches instead of trimming off the extreme edges. Contractors are employed with no equipment. Most of the trimming is done by manual labour which basically means you clamber up the trunk and cut off what you cannot reach. So, the trees are left lopsided and waiting to fall. With proper care, they would not perish despite the concrete jungle around them.
Concretisation around the roots is also a major reason for degradation of a tree’s health. Coal tarring and constant paving leave the roots with no earth to breathe or drink through besides increasing their temperature. Many times, due to lack of space around the trees, the roots are unable to grow. They become stunted and are not a strong enough anchor. In most cases, city trees lose their tap roots which lose their functionality because of falling water tables.
The arborist approach shows how backward we are in terms of basic infrastructure management of trees which breathes oxygen and life into us.
Studies have proven that trees have a positive effect on many aspects of people’s lives, including their health, homes, businesses, communities, drinking water and air quality. (See box: The Urban Tree Book by Arthur Plotnik.) Modest increases of 10 per cent canopy cover in the New York City Area were shown to reduce peak ozone levels by up to four parts per billion or by nearly three per cent of the maximum and 37 per cent of the amount by which the area exceeded its air quality standard. Similar results were found in Los Angeles and along the East Coast from Baltimore to Boston.
Trees also reduce noise pollution by absorbing sounds. A belt of trees 98 ft wide and 49 ft high can reduce highway noise by six to 10 decibels. Research has shown that trees in California parking lots reduced asphalt temperatures by as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and car interior temperatures by over 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Philadelphia’s 2.1 million trees currently store approximately 481,000 metric tonnes of carbon with an estimated value of $9.8 million.
The law of the land states that for each tree cut, 10 should be replanted as compensation. This rationale of planting 10 saplings for a single felled tree is bizarre as it isn’t binding on civic authorities to look after the saplings till they mature into trees. It takes a sapling at least 15 years to branch out and become a full-fledged tree. But left in the open, saplings are easily destroyed by grazing cattle or harsh weather conditions. Moreover, most trees are transplanted far away from the city limits and in future will have no direct impact on improving the city’s air quality.
At the risk of borrowing a punchline of a motorcycle advertisement, a transplantation drive can be summed in four short phrases — uproot it, transport it, replant it and forget it. Yet, transplantation doesn’t mean just rooting out a tree and planting it elsewhere. It needs a lot of looking after. First, a pit deep enough to cover the roots of the adult tree has to be dug at least a month in advance and watered regularly, so that the soil remains moist. Then favourable mud, one that the tree is used to, has to be brought in from the original spot. Once the tree is planted, it has to be monitored and maintained for at least two-and-a-half months. Like a human body, which takes time to adjust to a new organ, a supplanted tree, too, goes through a period of trauma and adjustment. As specialists Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins write in The Secret Life of Plants, “If a plant is threatened with overwhelming danger or damage, it reacts self-defensively in a way similar to an opposum — or, indeed to a human being — by ‘passing out,’ or going into a deep faint.”
“If it is a sapling/ young tree you are trying to protect then it’s fairly simple as you can insert a stake to act as a crutch, you would attach this to the tree by tying string around the tree and the stake. You should make sure it’s not tied too tight though as that could damage the tree any way. You could also build a small guard around the tree if animals are eating the bark or if the tree is being regularly damaged; this should surround the tree and reach half way up the tree, but make sure you don’t build it too close as it could damage the roots,” says an expert.
A lot of help can come in the initial prevention of damage to the tree by way of proper pruning, fertilising and watering if required, but knowing the right amount of each is essential to it working correctly. Also the right care for your specific type of tree is important because each requires different conditions to grow best. Learn how to prune correctly because poor techniques can cause the tree damage such as diseases and infestations.
When the tree is growing, do not over protect it from the wind as this helps the tree become suppler when faced with the wind as it would during a storm. It helps establish strong roots and main stem. You can have lightning protection systems installed to stop damage in older trees. In some extreme cases, you may have to remove the tree altogether if it’s too damaged or may cause damage to the surrounding properties.
Transplantation is a highly skilled and professional work done by tree surgeons in the UK, US, Australia and other parts of the world. These new age surgeons assess trees to determine the health, structure, safety or feasibility within a community landscape. Tree care, though a new discipline, has also stretched to laboratory experiments where diseased tissue is being repaired in a petri dish, much like scabs on a human wound. It’s time we seriously look into developing home-grown experts. For our future’s sake.
What we have lost
In Delhi, 38,000 trees have been cut in the capital by MCD, NDMC, DDA, the Public Works Department and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) since 2005 for various projects. The Northern Railway has recently given permission to cut 3,000 trees to facilitate the expansion of Anand Vihar Railway Station. A few hundred boulevard trees have been lost to squalls and rain this season.
In Mumbai suburbs, at least 100 trees around the Powai Lake have been sacrificed for a jogging track.
As part of a Bangalore road-widening project, 91 roads leading to the new Bengaluru International Airport have lost up to 30,000 trees. Around 159 trees will be felled on Mysore Road for the Namma Metro Project being implemented by Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited.
The Uttar Pradesh Government has come up with “environmental” reasons for felling 6,000 old trees and converting existing local parks into a BSP statue complex. The State claimed grandiosely in an affidavit that “60,000 trees will be planted in and around the park,” unable to fathom that such magnificent trees cannot be created overnight and take decades of hard work, care and patience.
The Forest Department in Punjab has said 1.11 lakh trees in the State would be cut under phase V of the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) in four districts, including Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana and Jalandhar.
Add the felling off another 1,522 trees sanctioned by the Pune Municipal Corporation.
– Compiled from various news sources