What lies at the intersection of history, culture and ecology in urban India? Trees.
Trees are the most visible signs of nature in cities, fundamentally shaping their identities. Trees are storehouses of the complex origins and histories of a city’s growth, coming as they do from different parts of the world, brought in by local and colonial rulers. From the tree planted by Sarojini Naidu at Dehradoon’s clock tower to those planted by Sher Shah Suri and Jahangir on Grand Trunk Road, trees in India have served, above all, as memory keepers. They are our roots: their trunks, our pillars, their barks, our texture, their branches, our shade. Trees are nature’s own museums.
– ‘Cities & Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities’,
Harini Nagendra & Seema Mundoli.
Cross section of a trunk. Source: The After Life of a Tree
The City after Amphan
The super cyclone Amphan struck West Bengal and Odisha on 21st of May 2020. Kolkata Municipal Corporation estimates 5,000-6,000 trees fell in the city alone. The immediate task of the corporation was to clear the roads of the fallen trees that had caused widespread power outages in the city. But for the people of the city, it was a very personal loss.
“I feel like the Neem and the Mango tree in front of our house saved our building from the Amphan cyclone. The trees struggled for six to seven hours against the ferocious winds and when I went to sleep that stormy night, I could still hear them lashing against my window.” said Poulami Mukhopadhyay, a resident of Jadavpur, Kolkata. (News18, A Personal Loss)
Apart from the loss of the flora and fauna that inhabit trees, as Sandeep Roy in his TOI article
³ points out, “..the loss of a tree hits us at some more fundamental level. There is something about its solidity that anchors us. As generations pass, the tree reassures by carrying on.. It is a place to gather, for the roadside barber to set up shop, the street dog to nap, shade for the domestic help and the rickshaw puller. We plant trees in memory of loved ones. And we take them for granted just like loved ones.”
Why do our cities need trees?
Before we lost a major chunk of our city’s trees to Amphan, we were quite apathetic about their presence, to be honest. We did take them for granted. Officially speaking, there was a large disinvestment towards our trees for a variety of reasons
⁴ – lack of public knowledge about the importance of urban forestry, view that urban forestry is a “nice to have” rather than a critical investment, concern about things like fallen trees causing power outages and untended parks as dangerous. Another major reason is government silos in maintenance of urban greenery.
So do our cities need trees? For this we must look into how cities in developing countries grow. The rapid expansion of cities in India has mostly taken place without any land use planning strategy and the resulting human pressure has highly damaging effects on forests, landscapes, as well as green areas in and around cities (Food & Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations). Our cities suffer from what is called the ‘urban heat island’ phenomenon. Because of this heat bubble effect, the trapped heat in cities makes its temperature several notches higher than the surrounding countryside. Results are increasing heat strokes, and associated diseases. The worst affected, like in every case, are the most vulnerable sections and those who toil in the open. Strategic placement of trees in cities can help to cool the air between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, thus reducing the urban heat island effect, and helping urban communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.
“Urban heat island makes the simple act of walking on city roads unbearable“.⁵ And walking in public places is something we should be able to secure for everyone.
The environmental impacts of urbanization are often intensified by climate change and include increased pollution, decreased availability of food and resources, as well as increased poverty and frequency of extreme climatic events. For this very reason, we require trees to mitigate the negative impacts and social consequences of urbanization, and thus make cities more resilient to these changes.
“For those who think in terms of GDP, air pollution results in a loss of 3 per cent GDP.”⁶ A mature tree can absorb up to 150 kg of CO2 per year. As a result, trees play an important role in climate change mitigation. Large trees are excellent filters for urban pollutants and fine particulates. Especially in cities with high levels of pollution, trees can improve air quality, making cities healthier places to live in. From a purely commercial point of view, planning urban landscapes with trees can increase property value, by up to 20 percent, and attract tourism and business. (FAO)⁷
Role of an expert and why is it so important
In the aftermath of Amphan, several city based organisations and conscientious citizens immediately sprang into action to provide emergency relief, reforestation and livelihood to cyclone hit areas and communities under the initiative Rebuild Bengal. A sub-group under this wider initiative is focused on replanting uprooted trees and urban reforestation, and together they have done a wonderful job in areas like Rabindra Sarobar and some other neighbourhoods of Kolkata.
Furthering this objective, a consortium was formed consisting of FNS Constructions, Architecture Lab for Earth and The Makers Collaborative. The starting point was to provide employment to migrant labourers stationed near Joka, working with FNS Constructions during the lock-down, in replanting trees under the expert knowledge of urban planners, ecologists supported by community engagement professionals. We were invited to the IIM-C campus in Joka where almost 200 trees had fallen due to Amphan.
We were extremely fortunate to have the renowned ecologist, Dr Debal Deb for the survey of damaged trees. For those uninitiated to his work, Dr. Deb, the founder of the rice seed banks Vrihi and Basudha, is a farmer, a scientist and a seed hero.
An initial site reconnoitre was conducted by Architect Sheikh Farhan Ali that gave us an overall picture of the extent of damage and the scope of restoration. With a sincere team of volunteers
*, a second site visit was conducted by Dr. Debal Deb on 2nd June. We divided the location of roadside and lake-side trees on IIM-C campus into 6 zones, of which Zone 1 was reported, by our team’s previous reconnoitre, to have witnessed the greatest extent of damage to trees. Based on this prior information, Dr. Deb undertook an intensive survey of all roadside trees in Zone 1, beginning from the Main Gate up the eastern road toward north (see map). This survey, conducted on the June 2, 2020 is to give an on-ground sampling estimation of the damage.
This was followed by documentation of trees in Zone 1 as per proper surveying technique. The damaged trees were coded and labelled with orange paint, a process that could be later carried forward by the on-campus student volunteers at the institute.
Dr. Deb recommended** it was advisable to undertake planned landscaping in the campus. But in case no replacement plantation is possible presently, restoration of the damaged trees needs to be accomplished as soon as possible. Joka is an area where the water table is shallow. The IIM-C campus has a considerably large area of wetland, which keeps the water table shallow round the year. Trees like Cassia, Delonix and Peltophorum are inappropriate in this location, because the roots of such trees require aerated soil. Wet soil, with a shallow water table, is not conducive to vertical root growth. Thus, the roots of some of the species were not securely anchored to the wet ground. Consequently, when their above ground biomass grows heavier with age, windthrow is likely to be common.
Following this observation, Dr. Deb recommended selection and plantation of trees from a repertoire of local trees with specific characteristics suited to the soil conditions at IIM-C campus. For those trees that could be restored, he suggested removal cuts, reduction cuts, and re-erection.
The learning for us from this survey with Dr. Deb was that while it is important to save and replant trees, a prerequisite is to know them first. For we can’t save something we don’t know. Moreover, once we start knowing we realize that it is the other way round – our well being is dependent on how we treat nature. We co-habit this ecosystem with an amazing variety of species in flora and fauna, and are not the owners of it. We co-exist along with an infinite variety of micro-organisms, each with their unique ecological footprint. So when a 100 years old tree falls, it is this entire mutually dependent ecosystem that is effected.
This probably should be one of our takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic too. It is time we start observing and understanding nature around us. The initiation towards a nature-centered economy must start from home and school. This is where learning experiences like a Natural Heritage Trail are so important and should be organically incorporated in regular school curriculum, something we, at The Makers Collaborative, have been advocating through our work.
Coming back to replanting trees, passion and enthusiasm backed by proper knowledge, planning and expertise can go a long way in ensuring their stability and sustainability. Again, proper knowledge is required to know that not every tree that falls down should be replanted. Without this strong fundamental base (knowledge), the superstructure of the tree might fall down again.
* We are grateful to the faculty and administration at IIM-C to have invited us for the survey and thankful to the students on campus that volunteered and took care of our entire team that included volunteers from #RebuildBengal initiative who we would also like to thank for participating and contributing towards the survey in extreme June heat.
** Extracts from the report submitted on the condition of damaged trees at IIM-C campus after the survey on June 2, 2020.
¹ WWF Poland 2005, The Afterlife of a Tree, BIELDRUK Drukarnia.
² Simanti Dey, ‘A Personal Loss: How Death of Over 5,000 Trees Due to Amphan Cyclone Will Impact Kolkata’, <https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/a-personal-loss-how-death-of-thousands-of-trees-due-to-amphan-cyclone-will-impact-kolkata-2634857.html> (last accessed June 5, 2020).
³ Sandip Roy, ‘Why loss of Kolkata’s gorgeous old trees feels so personal’, <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/paper-cut/why-loss-of-kolkatas-gorgeous-old-trees-feels-so-personal/>, (last accessed June 5, 2020).
⁴ The Nature Conservancy, ‘How Cities Can Harness Public Health Benefits of Urban Trees’.
⁵ ⁶ Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli 2019, ‘Cities and canopies, trees in Indian cities’, Penguin Random House India, New Delhi.
⁷ Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, ‘Building greener cities: nine benefits of urban trees’, <http://www.fao.org/zhc/detail-events/en/c/454543/>, (last accessed June 5, 2020).