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A Decade After Aila, Cyclone Amphan Finally Changes Kolkata’s Plantation Policy

A Decade After Aila, Cyclone Amphan Finally Changes Kolkata’s Plantation Policy

A gulmohar tree in Kolkata. Photo: J.M. Garg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Kolkata: Gulmohar, or krishnachura (Delonix regia), with its canopy that turns red in the flowering season of summer and monsoon, has been adding colour to Kolkata’s cityscape for years. So has its close relative, radhachura (copperpod; Peltophorum pterocarpum), with bright yellow flowers.

These common roadside trees in Kolkata will however become rarer sights in the years to come. They are among the many trees civic authorities and the West Bengal government have decided not to plant anymore in Kolkata. This is one of many changes in the city’s plantation policy after Cyclone Amphan barrelled into Kolkata in late May, uprooted or damaged nearly 15,000 trees, and prompted a groundswell of concern about the city’s green cover.

Though environmentalists had been insisting that the the city’s plantation patterns be changed for quite a few years, especially since Cyclone Aila uprooting several hundred trees in 2009, their demands were magnified by the ferocity of Cyclone Amphan.

The other major part of the policy change is in shifting the focus on replantation and transplantation. Thus far, the city and state administrations have compensated the cutting down of on tree tree by planting 10 saplings. However, environmentalists have insisted this compensation wasn’t enough, as the saplings take many years to grow. They have also alleged that the government hadn’t  been planting the prescribed number of saplings. Officials have mostly avoided transplantation because it can cost between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000 per tree.

Now, over the last month, city authorities and NGOs have replanted more than 500 trees, including a hundred trees at the Rabindra Sarobar lake area and another hundred in the Maidan area, recognised as the ‘lungs of Kolkata.’ When the NRS Medical College and Hospital needed to remove a century-old myrobalan tree, it chose to transplant it on June 26.

“All trees don’t fit in all localities,” said environmental engineer Somendra Mohan Ghosh. “But in Kolkata, trees have been planted without any planning for years. I had suggested the government in 2015 to get a tree census done based on which a plantation policy could be drawn. Without a census, how could one plan? But nothing of that sort has happened yet.”

According to Ghosh, many roadside trees have become endangered thanks to ill-planned interventions – such as chopping branches to protect overhead cables but disrupting the trees’ the balance; underground cables and water pipes laid such that they obstructed roots; and concretising the ground around roots so the trees fell over even in 60 km/hr winds.

“Demands for stress on transplantation fell on deaf ears. The city does not even have necessary equipment for transplantation,” Ghosh said.

For years, krishnachura, radhachura and ashoka (Saraca asoca) were planted in large numbers because they grow fast and are aesthetically pleasing. However, since 2010, they have been the principal victims of every squall to hit Kolkata. After Cyclone Aila, this was observed during the nor’westers1 and squalls in April 2012, August 2016, October 2017 and twice each in 2018 and 2019.

Environmentalists grew concerned as a result, especially since Kolkata was already losing greeneries to development projects. A 2015 report of the National Commission on Urbanisation estimated Kolkata’s green cover to be less than 5% and open space to be less than 1%.

A copperpod tree. Photo: Forest & Kim Starr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

It was no surprise than that in March 2018, a WHO report ranked Kolkata as the second-most polluted metropolitan city in India, after Delhi; six months later, the city’s air quality index climbed above Delhi’s for several days. In November 2019, when Delhi was ranked as the world’s most polluted metropolitan city on a certain day, Kolkata claimed the fifth position on the list and Mumbai the ninth.

According to environmentalists, it’s important to pick the right species of trees for the right place. They have also stressed transplantation and creating urban forestry and ‘green blocks’ considering the city’s vacant space is doesn’t allow a large number of trees to be planted.

“Krishnachura and radhachura are good options for parks but Kolkata’s roadsides need less-brittle trees, like chhatim2, neem3, bakul4 and jarul5,” Suchandra Bardhan, a professor of architecture at Jadavpur University, told The Wire Science. “The roadsides need trees with narrow canopies and dense foliage because there is a lack of required space for their natural growth.”

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has decided to conduct its plantation and replantation drive based on such suggestions.

“The city needs 30,000-40,000 trees to compensate for the loss. Everything about the plantation work will be decided by an expert committee, involving environmentalists and municipal authorities,” Firhad Hakim, chairman of KMC’s board of administrators and the state’s urban development minister, said. “They are deciding which tree is to be planted where and when.”

“We have [considered] expert opinions and [have] accordingly decided to plant trees like neem, chhatim, jarul and deodar6 in the city,” forest minister Rajib Banerjee said. “About 12,500 three-year-old saplings and about 4,500 10-year-old saplings will be planted.”

Almond, mango, black plum, sheesham7 and arjun8 are also being considered for roadside plantation. According to a senior KMC official, the administration is also mulling a change of plan vis-à-vis underground cables and pipelines.

According to environmental activist Arjan Basu Roy, who is involved in replantation work, “The silver lining from the Amphan devastation is that it has left a positive impact on public awareness of the environment. Not only that – the administration is now keenly listening to us, and even common people showed great interest and enthusiasm in replanting fallen trees.”

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist in Kolkata.

  1. “Isolated rain fall and thunder storm which occurs in India and Bangladesh, often with violent hurricane-speed winds”: Wikipedia

  2. Alstonia scholaris

  3. Azadirachta indica

  4. Mimusops elengi

  5. Lagerstroemia speciosa

  6. Cedrus deodara

  7. Dalbergia sissoo

  8. Terminalia arjuna

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