Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!

The idea of planting new trees for each tree cut may sound like a magical solution, but that’s not always so.

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Explainers
6 min read
Compensatory afforestation is a complicated process.
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No “big tree” will be cut in south Delhi to redevelop residential colonies, the Union Ministry of Urban Development assured green crusaders and citizens of the increasingly polluted national capital on 28 June. This, after the ministry said that around 14,000 trees will be cleared to build houses for government employees.

But with over 1,500 trees already chopped in Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, the focus has now shifted to compensatory afforestation — a concept that requires proper planning and assessment. Wondering why? Let us explain.

Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!

  1. 1. Yeh Compensatory Afforestation Kya hai?

    For the uninitiated, compensatory afforestation refers to the practice of planting new saplings in order to make up for the ecological mess caused by the felling of trees. Several laws and court judgments are already in place to ensure that more trees are planted for each tree cut.

    Under Section 10 of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act 1994, “Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to cut or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the Tree Officer.”

    In addition, a clutch of judgments passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) shed light on the exact number of trees to be planted, for each one cut.

    In the Raghunath Jha vs Ministry of Urban Development judgment, the green court said that permission to cut trees can be obtained only on the condition that “if any tree is fell or permitted to cut, in place thereof at least, 10 trees shall be planted.”

    Thus, the NGT verdict sets the precedence of planting 10 trees for every one tree cut.

    Expand
  2. 2. Can All Plants Survive Delhi's Pollution?

    But compensatory afforestation is far more complex. Planting new trees in place of the cut ones is a simplistic understanding of afforestation that does “more harm than good to the environment”, explains Dr Chirashree Ghosh, Associate Professor of Environment, at the University of Delhi.

    Dr Ghosh cautions that the option of cutting a tree must appear only when all other options have failed and after due consideration to the tree’s ecological role has been given. This means that if a tree is slow-growing, fruit-bearing and pollution absorbing, the merits of the project responsible for its felling must be weighed against its function in supporting the environment. A new sapling may take years to mature and thereby perform the roles of a slow-growing tree.

    While plantation is important, not just any plant can replace existing ones. Each plant has its own pollution tolerance capacity. If a plant sensitive to Delhi’s weather conditions is introduced, it won’t be able to survive. The solution is to map trees in terms of their endurance to pollution levels, before including them in the plantation programme.
    Dr Chirashree Ghosh

    Similarly, species native to the region must be preferred, as they have a higher survival rate.

    Dr Khudsar of Delhi University’s Biodiversity Park Programme says indigenous and native plants like jamun and neem are both fruit-bearing and have a higher chance to survive in Delhi.

    But, according to a report in The Indian Express, most trees planted by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) in its earlier redevelopment projects in Kidwai Nagar and Moti Nagar, are not “native” to Delhi and are of “little ecological value”.

    The NBCC is the agency responsible for redeveloping government residential colonies in Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, and has promised to plant one million trees to offset the loss caused by massive deforestation.

    Expand
  3. 3. Can Urban Planning Incorporate Trees?

    Further, if plantations are included in the project design itself, the need for cutting them may not arise in the future, stresses Dr Ghosh. She feels that if plantation takes place in a planned manner, it will have better chances of survival. For this, Dr Ghosh says, designers who understand and thereby incorporate the role of nature in urban planning are required.

    Dr Khudsar of Delhi University’s Biodiversity Park Programme says plantations must take place in a three-storied forest. “Trees of different height must be planted so that there's a top, middle and lower canopy,” he adds.

    When vehicles pass, dust particles rise up in the air only to settle on the ground. A three-layered tree cover would trap this dust and would help in checking its concentration in the air. 
    Dr Faiyaz Khudsar
    Expand
  4. 4. NBCC Didn’t Plant Saplings Before Cutting Trees?

    In the Raghunath Jha verdict of 2017, the NGT further said that compensatory afforestation must take place in the “same area” as the project, failing which the afforestation activity could be taken up at any other site available with the land owning agencies. It also notes that fresh saplings must be planted as “a condition precedent to the cutting of trees.”

    But, according to a report,in The Wire, the NBCC has been assigned the Yamuna floodplains to carry out afforestation activities for trees felled in two of the seven housing colonies being redeveloped in south Delhi. Residents and green activists say plantation must take place in or close to the area where trees have been felled and not miles away from it.

    Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
    (Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

    Although the NBCC obtained permission to cut 3,994 trees in Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, it only managed to cut around 1,500 trees across the two projects. But the construction agency clearly violated the 2017 NGT order, as it failed to plant 39,994 or even 15,000 new saplings, before laying its hands on the trees.

    Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
    (Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)
    Expand
  5. 5. The Controversial History of Compensatory Afforestation

    What’s more shocking is that a recent inspection by the Delhi Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Kidwai Nagar project being redeveloped by the NBCC, has brought out the real picture of compensatory afforestation. According to the PAC, only 3,195 saplings have been planted at Kidwai Nagar, instead of 8,165 plants that were promised by the NBCC.

    Additionally, a CAG report released in April this year has questioned the efficacy of the Tree Authority, which falls under the purview of the Delhi government. According to the report, the forest department and other green bodies of the Delhi government had only planted 28.12 lakh trees instead of 36.57 lakh trees between 2014-17.

    Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
    (Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

    Further, a Hindustan Times claimed how an existing compensatory afforestation site on the outskirts of Delhi in Garhi Mandu has been crippled by lack of records, frequent forest fires and an shortage in staff to monitor growth and ensure preservation of existing plants. The report adds that compensatory planting done decades back have not yielded results, as each year at least a 100 saplings fall prey to fires. A stretch near Garhi Mandu is one of the areas earmarked for the NBCC to carry out compensatory afforestation, in lieu of its seven redevelopment projects in south Delhi.

    Additionally, the Tree Authority, it emerged, gave away 750 permissions for felling 13,018 trees in Delhi. According to the Hindustan Times report, the Delhi government’s forest department did not reject a single proposal to cut trees in the last five years. The report quoted officials, who said that permissions to cut trees were given with minor changes.

    Expand
  6. 6. No Faith in Compensatory Afforestation: Green Activists

    It is probably this lopsided effort around fresh plantation that makes Juhi Saklani look at the idea of compensatory afforestation with suspicion. The environmental activist at Delhi Trees SOS feels it is just used as a license to override environmental norms and doesn’t really have any impact.

    There is overwhelming evidence, as highlighted by the 2018 CAG report, that compensatory afforestation does not work. In Kidwai Nagar, that was redeveloped earlier, ornamental palm trees, with little ecological value have been planted. Since there’s an underground parking there, its impossible to plant fruiting trees in that colony. This implies that agencies hide behind the fig leaf of compensatory afforestation to cut more and more trees.
    Juhi Saklani, Delhi Trees SOS

    Environmentalist Rajeev Suri says he does not believe in compensatory plantation elsewhere as the concept in Delhi is a complete failure. “We don’t want more trees, but we want to protect and preserve what we already have,” he adds. If at all compensatory afforestation must take place, Suri demands, it must be done immediately at the place where trees have been felled.

    (The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

    Expand

Yeh Compensatory Afforestation Kya hai?

For the uninitiated, compensatory afforestation refers to the practice of planting new saplings in order to make up for the ecological mess caused by the felling of trees. Several laws and court judgments are already in place to ensure that more trees are planted for each tree cut.

Under Section 10 of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act 1994, “Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to cut or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the Tree Officer.”

In addition, a clutch of judgments passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) shed light on the exact number of trees to be planted, for each one cut.

In the Raghunath Jha vs Ministry of Urban Development judgment, the green court said that permission to cut trees can be obtained only on the condition that “if any tree is fell or permitted to cut, in place thereof at least, 10 trees shall be planted.”

Thus, the NGT verdict sets the precedence of planting 10 trees for every one tree cut.

Can All Plants Survive Delhi's Pollution?

But compensatory afforestation is far more complex. Planting new trees in place of the cut ones is a simplistic understanding of afforestation that does “more harm than good to the environment”, explains Dr Chirashree Ghosh, Associate Professor of Environment, at the University of Delhi.

Dr Ghosh cautions that the option of cutting a tree must appear only when all other options have failed and after due consideration to the tree’s ecological role has been given. This means that if a tree is slow-growing, fruit-bearing and pollution absorbing, the merits of the project responsible for its felling must be weighed against its function in supporting the environment. A new sapling may take years to mature and thereby perform the roles of a slow-growing tree.

While plantation is important, not just any plant can replace existing ones. Each plant has its own pollution tolerance capacity. If a plant sensitive to Delhi’s weather conditions is introduced, it won’t be able to survive. The solution is to map trees in terms of their endurance to pollution levels, before including them in the plantation programme.
Dr Chirashree Ghosh

Similarly, species native to the region must be preferred, as they have a higher survival rate.

Dr Khudsar of Delhi University’s Biodiversity Park Programme says indigenous and native plants like jamun and neem are both fruit-bearing and have a higher chance to survive in Delhi.

But, according to a report in The Indian Express, most trees planted by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) in its earlier redevelopment projects in Kidwai Nagar and Moti Nagar, are not “native” to Delhi and are of “little ecological value”.

The NBCC is the agency responsible for redeveloping government residential colonies in Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, and has promised to plant one million trees to offset the loss caused by massive deforestation.

Can Urban Planning Incorporate Trees?

Further, if plantations are included in the project design itself, the need for cutting them may not arise in the future, stresses Dr Ghosh. She feels that if plantation takes place in a planned manner, it will have better chances of survival. For this, Dr Ghosh says, designers who understand and thereby incorporate the role of nature in urban planning are required.

Dr Khudsar of Delhi University’s Biodiversity Park Programme says plantations must take place in a three-storied forest. “Trees of different height must be planted so that there's a top, middle and lower canopy,” he adds.

When vehicles pass, dust particles rise up in the air only to settle on the ground. A three-layered tree cover would trap this dust and would help in checking its concentration in the air. 
Dr Faiyaz Khudsar

NBCC Didn’t Plant Saplings Before Cutting Trees?

In the Raghunath Jha verdict of 2017, the NGT further said that compensatory afforestation must take place in the “same area” as the project, failing which the afforestation activity could be taken up at any other site available with the land owning agencies. It also notes that fresh saplings must be planted as “a condition precedent to the cutting of trees.”

But, according to a report,in The Wire, the NBCC has been assigned the Yamuna floodplains to carry out afforestation activities for trees felled in two of the seven housing colonies being redeveloped in south Delhi. Residents and green activists say plantation must take place in or close to the area where trees have been felled and not miles away from it.

Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

Although the NBCC obtained permission to cut 3,994 trees in Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, it only managed to cut around 1,500 trees across the two projects. But the construction agency clearly violated the 2017 NGT order, as it failed to plant 39,994 or even 15,000 new saplings, before laying its hands on the trees.

Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

The Controversial History of Compensatory Afforestation

What’s more shocking is that a recent inspection by the Delhi Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Kidwai Nagar project being redeveloped by the NBCC, has brought out the real picture of compensatory afforestation. According to the PAC, only 3,195 saplings have been planted at Kidwai Nagar, instead of 8,165 plants that were promised by the NBCC.

Additionally, a CAG report released in April this year has questioned the efficacy of the Tree Authority, which falls under the purview of the Delhi government. According to the report, the forest department and other green bodies of the Delhi government had only planted 28.12 lakh trees instead of 36.57 lakh trees between 2014-17.

Cut Trees, Plant Saplings? Compensatory Afforestation Isn’t Easy!
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

Further, a Hindustan Times claimed how an existing compensatory afforestation site on the outskirts of Delhi in Garhi Mandu has been crippled by lack of records, frequent forest fires and an shortage in staff to monitor growth and ensure preservation of existing plants. The report adds that compensatory planting done decades back have not yielded results, as each year at least a 100 saplings fall prey to fires. A stretch near Garhi Mandu is one of the areas earmarked for the NBCC to carry out compensatory afforestation, in lieu of its seven redevelopment projects in south Delhi.

Additionally, the Tree Authority, it emerged, gave away 750 permissions for felling 13,018 trees in Delhi. According to the Hindustan Times report, the Delhi government’s forest department did not reject a single proposal to cut trees in the last five years. The report quoted officials, who said that permissions to cut trees were given with minor changes.

No Faith in Compensatory Afforestation: Green Activists

It is probably this lopsided effort around fresh plantation that makes Juhi Saklani look at the idea of compensatory afforestation with suspicion. The environmental activist at Delhi Trees SOS feels it is just used as a license to override environmental norms and doesn’t really have any impact.

There is overwhelming evidence, as highlighted by the 2018 CAG report, that compensatory afforestation does not work. In Kidwai Nagar, that was redeveloped earlier, ornamental palm trees, with little ecological value have been planted. Since there’s an underground parking there, its impossible to plant fruiting trees in that colony. This implies that agencies hide behind the fig leaf of compensatory afforestation to cut more and more trees.
Juhi Saklani, Delhi Trees SOS

Environmentalist Rajeev Suri says he does not believe in compensatory plantation elsewhere as the concept in Delhi is a complete failure. “We don’t want more trees, but we want to protect and preserve what we already have,” he adds. If at all compensatory afforestation must take place, Suri demands, it must be done immediately at the place where trees have been felled.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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