World Environment Day on June 5th this year held a different significance altogether for the city of Kolkata. For the city battered by Cyclone Amphan, one of the worst storms to hit Bengal in over three centuries, the usual observances that mark the day, such as planting of trees, were no longer mere token activities but a critical need, an attempt at reversing the incalculable ecological damage it had suffered just days back.
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But will Environment Day pledges and other plantation drives that have since been undertaken in the city prove enough?
Are they even advisable as they are being undertaken today?
Several thousands of trees were uprooted in the severity of the cyclone across the state, of which 5000 trees are ‘officially’ estimated to have been lost in the city alone, though environmentalists fear the numbers could be higher by at least three times. Across Kolkata, the city authorities and local citizen groups have initiated afforestation drives at various scales.
On June 5th, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) embarked on a mission to plant 50,000 saplings in the city. The city police also began planting saplings in different police stations across the city. Several citizens have come together to clear their neighbourhoods and replant trees.
Environmentalists and tree experts, however, have expressed concerns over the mad rush of planting trees and saplings in the city.
Ecology experts fear that the very same mistakes by planning authorities, politicians and members of civil society in the past, which were in large part responsible for the massive loss of trees during the cyclone this time, are possibly being repeated. Besides, unplanned constructions and concretization of spaces around the base of the trees have also been blamed for the poor resilience of the city’s green cover.
“We made grave mistakes in the past while planting trees in Kolkata. We failed to understand the needs of a tree and the space it requires, or even the natural conditions it is suited for,” said Arjan Basu Roy, secretary, Nature Mates, a non-profit working for environment in Kolkata.
“We live at a distance of just 120 kilometres from Bay of Bengal which is among the most turbulent cyclone-prone zones but the city went about planting trees like the Radhachura (Peltophorum pterocarpum) which are just not strong enough to withstand the impact of the cyclone. It is a beautiful tree but not suitable for Kolkata. It would have been much better had the Bakul (Mimusops elengi) and other species been planted, which are far more resilient.”
Arjan also pointed fingers at the callous disregard of urban planners who ignored the advice of tree experts. “Many skyscrapers that are coming up in the city have been built without any planning. They are funnelling the air pressure. There is no wind diagram map of Kolkata either, which should mention how the winds flow in and out, what are the obstacles and what happens when strong obstacles come in the way of winds,” he said.
When the city was built upon during the British period, there had been proper east-west and north-south wind canals with open spaces and diversions. The whole system was done in a properly mapped way. But today, construction is rampant and haphazard. “Urban planning needs a proper co-ordinated approach which is absent. There are no plans to understand the diversion of strong winds. New plantations should also be regulated and pass through a committee comprised of tree experts.”
Concretising the base of trees
Another major problem faced by trees are the concrete structures at their base; in Kolkata, this is a common feature, a result of misguided beautification initiatives by private corporates that, according to green experts, are akin to throttling the tree. Such concretisation restricts the access of the tree to soil, water and air, gradually weakening them. This has been blamed for the loss of a large number of trees during the cyclone Amphan.
In June 2019, Pradeep Kakkar, founder member of the environmental group People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC), filed a writ petition in the Calcutta High Court, seeking the demolition of unauthorised concrete structures around the base of large trees. He says that he was forced to move court after the KMC gave no reply for the concretisation despite approaching the authorities for continuous 18 months.
“We repeatedly asked KMC how the permission was granted for concretisation at the base of the trees but they didn’t give any reply. We were forced to file a Right to Information (RTI) after which they replied that no such permission was given. We then moved the court. The court took a serious view of the illegalities and ordered the immediate demolition of such structures and sought a detailed report from KMC,” shared Pradeep.
The KMC swung into action and demolished some of these structures in the city but neither the court nor Kakkar was satisfied with it. “We want the civic body to be held responsible as they are enshrined with the duty to protect trees in Kolkata. The court also wanted an audit report and complete details of locations where the demolition was done.”
Urban Greening Guidelines 2014, says:
- An area of 1.2 x1.2 sq m around a tree must be left clear during the tiling of pavements to allow growth of trees
- No structure can be built around a tree that hinders its growth.
- Impermeable material should be avoided to allow ground recharging.
- Mandatory spaces should be left on the side of the pavements so that rain water can seep in, allowing trees to access water.
Pradeep claims that none of the above guidelines have ever been followed scrupulously and the need of the hour is to declare such violations as criminal offence. “We should have a master plan for greenery and even micro planning to understand the requirements of each major street, and plant trees accordingly. There should also be an increased focus on urban forests and awareness among people. Random and haphazard plantation of trees won’t serve any purpose.”
Many environmentalists rue that most of the restoration and plantations in the city are just for photo opportunities rather than careful, deliberated attempts towards achieving a serious goal. “The restoration drive currently underway in Kolkata is being done in a most unscientific manner. Trees are being cut to half their size and the leaves are being removed. The absorption of carbon dioxide depends on the density of leaves. Root ball treatment is required for replanting the tree that involves cleaning of trees, root stimulator, providing nutrients, fertilizers and water to the soil. A double diameter of earth has to be dug for replanting the tree, hardly any of which is being followed,” said Somendra Mohan Ghosh, an environmentalist, adding that the administration doesn’t have the requisite equipment for re-transplantation.
He also feels that the state government’s stated goal of planting over 1 lakh trees in Kolkata is an unrealistic one, as the monsoon would prevail in full force by July 15th. “They have not even planted a thousand trees till now. The uprooted trees have to be removed within three months or the fungus will spread to other trees and damage them. It is very necessary to use anti-fungus spray.” Clearly, very little of this is being done in a planned and sustained manner.
Parks should be returned to nature
Mallika Jalan, Executive Director of the Centre for Contemporary Communication,who had done a census on the parks of the city in 2014, talks of another important aspect of greening the city — in her words, parks should be returned to nature. Parks in the city are the most healthy and suitable areas for planting trees.
“Concretisation of parks in the name of beautification should be stopped and they should be returned to nature. Major chunks of space in the parks have been converted into concrete playgrounds while very little is left for greenery,” said Mallika, “Even the small portion in the park which is referred to as green cover is actually shrubs. Trees can be planted on the periphery of the big parks. Our survey found that there are 750 big and small parks in the city. The time has come to rethink the use of these parks, and experts should be roped in to revive these and make them green again.”
She also reiterated that Amphan has shown that pavement planting is a terrible idea and should be avoided at any cost.
Minister of Urban Affairs and former mayor of Kolkata, Firhad Hakim, however, said that proper norms were being followed while planting trees in the aftermath of the cyclone. “The urban forestry department under Kolkata Municipal Corporation has been given the responsibility to decide the kind of the trees that should be planted in the city. The decision will be taken accordingly.”