Three trees that made their way from Delhi University to the Yamuna Biodiversity Park nine years ago have a home at the edge of the park, which is among the capital’s greenest areas. Staff here give special attention to these trees, reporting any problems to higher-ups.
In 2010, seven trees from Delhi University Rugby Stadium were among those supposed to be cut down during preparation for the Commonwealth Games. Officials had opted to transplant them instead.
A team from the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems at Delhi University, headed by renowned ecologist C R Babu, carried out the exercise, transplanting the seven trees to the Park. Nine years later, Babu said, the experiment is not particularly a success.
“Survival rate and the quality after transplantation are not very encouraging,” he said.
Out of the seven trees that were transplanted, three died. Three pipal trees and one bombax are still alive, but “only just”. “If you look at the foliage of two pipal trees, it has not grown back much, even in nine years. It is like living with a handicap… The younger pipal and the bombax are doing better,” said wildlife biologist Faiyaz Khudsar, the scientist in-charge at Yamuna Biodiversity Park.
A favoured option
On October 1, Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said that 186 trees hindering the alignment of new buildings planned at Kasturba Nagar’s government employees’ residential area will be transplanted. The last week also saw 111 trees inside the Delhi Technological University being transplanted to make way for a new building. For the Dwarka Expressway, the process to transplant 5,717 native trees has already begun, and is expected to take three months.
The capital’s push towards tree transplantation is evident.
And Puri’s statement on Kasturba Nagar is particularly significant, since the area is part of seven government residential colonies that were supposed to be rebuilt. For the entire project, over 14,000 trees were proposed to be cut.
A citizen campaign against tree felling in the capital last year, much like the one in Mumbai against felling of trees in Aarey Colony, is what prompted the decision to rework the project and come up with a design that would spare a larger number of trees and allot more room for transplantation. The campaign in Mumbai, though, has failed to force a rethink.
But a citizen campaign against the project forced the ministry to redraw its plan and look at transplanting instead of felling trees.
It was around the same time, in February this year, that the Delhi government announced it was coming up with a tree transplantation policy. As per its draft, which was put on the government website for a month to invite suggestions, of the total number of trees required to be felled for a project, at least 80% will have to be transplanted, preferably in-situ. Of these 80%, a survival rate of 80% should be ensured. The practice of planting 10 trees for each one that is cut should continue to be followed, it said.
Tree transplantation, though, is not exactly new — and neither are the challenges that come with it. Among the first such projects to be carried out in the city was in 1972, when CPWD transplanted around 25 trees from Zakir Husain Marg and Moti Bagh to Pragati Maidan. According to senior CPWD officials, only about five survived.
“The jacaranda, kusum and floss silk trees didn’t survive. A handful of pilkhan trees were the only ones that managed,” said a CPWD official.
In 2011, five moulsari trees were transplanted within the Lodhi Garden to give visitors a clear view of the Bada Gumbad. Between 2011 and 2017, the Delhi Forest Department granted permission to transplant 6,041 trees across the capital.
And this year, close to 6,000 trees are being transplanted for a single project, the Dwarka Expressway.
Whose job is it?
A forest department official acknowledged that ever since the tree transplantation policy was drafted in 2018, requests for relocation have gone up. Transplantation is usually considered if removal of a large number of trees is involved in a project, officials said. Since the forest department currently lacks manpower to carry out relocation on its own, agencies that approach it with requests are asked to make their own arrangements.
These arrangements usually come in the form of people who have been running nurseries and landscaping businesses in the city.
According to the draft tree transplantation policy, agencies that transplant trees have to be empanelled to make it easier for contractors to find them. The policy also includes a proposal to set up a separate transplant cell to look into finer details of the process and empanel the agencies.
Presently, the agencies that have to execute a project are tasked with finding someone who will take on the job.
At the Delhi Technological University last week, it was Kapil Arora and his firm A K Contractors who took it on.
“It is a complicated task. At DTU, the trees were transplanted within the premises. Each tree has been planted 6 metres from each other and transported just 1 kilometre away from the original location,” said Arora. The firm carried out the first such exercise in 2006, when it transplanted a few trees from Mandir Marg to a park nearby. Since then, Arora and his team have helped transplant trees in several government as well as private projects. He claims that the survival rate of transplanted trees is around 85%. “We monitor growth for 3-6 months. The longest monitoring period has been one year,” he said.
But experts say that may not be enough.
“We have monitored the growth of this tree for nine years and we know it is merely a shadow of what a pipal tree is. Is being alive the same as thriving? How can someone tell in 3-6 months if transplantation has been successful or not?” said Khudsar.
Several biologists and ecologists The Indian Express spoke to said transplantation should be the last option, to be considered only when all other avenues in project redesign have been exhausted.
What makes transplantation a fraught issue is the complexity and uncertainty involved, they said. A number of factors have to be considered, including the species of the tree, its age, health condition, type of soil, distance to the relocation site, transportation and weather conditions.
“Not all species can be transplanted. Those with a tap root system cannot be isolated from the soil. Ficus species are easier to isolate and pipal is a hardy species that takes well to being transplanted on paper. But what happens on the ground is much more complicated. Trees above the age of 10 are much tougher to transplant, as are those that have a trunk girth of over 1 metre,” Khudsar said.
“Everything can go well during the process but the tree could still die.”
Trees of ficus species, such as peepal, pilkhan, badh, are considered to be “hardy” with a better chance of survival when transplanted.
Among the suggestions that the forest department received for the policy was to encourage trees to be transplanted in the same area where they have been uprooted from.
Other suggestions include the formation of an expert committee comprising forest officials and a horticulture officer of the project agency to consider which trees are viable for transplantation.
The approach taken by the forest department at present, which gives approval for transplantation as per the draft policy, is to encourage relocation of trees of indigenous variety. Wherever three invasive tree species — safeda (a type of eucalyptus), vilayati kikar (prosopis juliflora) and subabol (Leucaena leucocephala) — are found, the policy suggests they be cut and 10 native trees be planted to replace each one.
This policy has invited some criticism.
In March, the Centre for Policy Research wrote to the Delhi government against it. In the letter, two researchers, Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon, wrote: “It (the draft policy) seeks to legalise the transplantation of 80% of trees that stand in potential project sites. This is nothing but vacating trees on a mass scale to reduce the ‘encumbrance’ to building projects. Successive governments have routinely made such arguments to get rid of trees… This is a very perverse logic in the name of protecting trees. If we accept that it is okay for trees to be vacated for real estate or other projects, soon the transplanted and afforested trees will have to make way for more projects.”
An environment department official echoed this: “Both the Centre and state are portraying tree transplantation like it is some kind of magical cure for everything. But such things are usually an eyewash. The fact that, after citizens approached the High Court, the number of trees that were supposed to be cut for the government colonies redevelopment project came down drastically shows that there was always scope for a more eco-friendly approach. If we look at the history of compensatory plantation, we realise that the survival rate is very poor in unprotected areas. Transplantation is several times tougher.”
Delhi’s environment minister Kailash Gahlot did not respond despite repeated attempts.
Khudsar said a few years ago, when the road under the Minto Bridge was flooded again, a study was commissioned to find out the reason. “It turned out that no one had studied the natural drainage pattern of the area before building the road. That is why, no matter what, cars floated there as it was the path that led rainwater to the river. It shows that we do not conduct any scientific study before finalising projects,” he said.
Hit and trial
Nursery owners say the number of queries they get for transplantation has skyrocketed in the past year.
Sanjay Saini, who has a nursery in Lampur in Outer Delhi and who was given the contract to transplant trees for the Jaipur Metro project, said most queries are from government agencies. “We get at least one query a day these days. We were also approached by the NBCC for a project, but it is on hold currently. Plant type and weather are crucial when it comes to transplantation and younger trees can absorb the shock better,” Saini said.
An ancestral business for him, Saini said he learned it on the job.
“We learned through hit and trial while working at the nursery. Sometimes it worked, at others it didn’t. No one really teaches these things,” he said.
According to Rehmat Khan, who has a nursery in Mehrauli, the one thing that has changed in the past one year is that people who would ordinarily cut a tree within their premises are now looking at options to transplant. “I see an increase in awareness for sure. People think before they file an application to cut a tree,” said Khan.
According to Delhi government officials, suggestions received by the public are being studied and many will be included in the policy, including those relating to maintenance and protection of trees.
Some years ago, the road leading up to the Yamuna Biodiversity Park was widened. Khudsar said some trees were cut at the time and some planted nearby.
“It was later decided that a flyover should be built at the spot. This was within a window of four years. Could they not have thought ahead and built a flyover to begin with? The problem is that the environment and trees are the last thing we think about. People don’t want them. You asked for the Metro, wider roads and hospitals and the politicians gave them to you. Did you ever ask for a jungle or a river? If you don’t ask, you will not get it,” he said.