Half measures hurt

Payel Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018

How green is myvalley: The NationalHighway 5 inVisakhapatnamsports a lush greenlook in 2009. -- K.R. Deepak

Planting trees along newly constructed national highways is the obvious thing to do, but outsourcing the process to private companies is doing more harm than good

In 2012, the Gujarat government imported two hydraulic machines to transplant trees along their state highways instead of cutting them down while constructing roads. Narendra Modi’s YouTube channel has short video clips of these hydraulic transplanters picking up trees, and then transplanting it in another location. The clip will tell you how to lift huge trees and put them in another prepared pit. It won’t tell you that very few among the transplanted trees have survived, according to data released by the Government of Gujarat. To avoid the inevitable destruction of forest cover while constructing roads, the government had begun transplanting and translocating them along state and national highways .

Half a decade later, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has colluded with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to employ this strategy to improve India’s forest cover and carbon sink — soil, ocean or trees that absorb greenhouse gases and carbon compounds emitted in the atmosphere. The government has approved the National Green Highway Mission under which 1 per cent of the project cost is to be set aside to transplant trees in all highway projects. It aims to plant trees along national highways, to improve the country’s carbon credit as well as generate employment in rural areas. (The aim in the first year was to plant along an initial 6,000 km.) Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, in a recent conference organised by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and NHAI (National Highway Authority of India), reported that the government would release ₹42,000 crore over the next three years for afforestation, and every state had to announce an afforestation plan under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, that has been passed by the Lower House on May 3. Disturbingly, he also said, “National Green Highways Mission is a major public initiative. We want to encourage public-private partnership under which 200 hectare patches will be given to private industries who are importing timber. This land will be given on lease for 40-50 years with 90 per cent of the forest for harvest on a revenue-sharing basis. This will encourage business and create jobs. The guidelines for this will be soon issued,” he said.  

The building of national highway extracts a huge cost on the environment. For instance, according to a report published by the Asian Development Bank, 16,524 trees were removed during the construction of NH-26 between UP and MP alone. A total of 125.2 kl/km of diesel was used.

Industry insiders say this poses a chicken-and-egg problem for people in charge of construction. If trees are transplanted after construction, the project drags on for longer, increasing costs. If transplantation is carried on during construction, the chances of the trees’ survival reduces dramatically. The newly transplanted trees are vulnerable to infection and prone to damage, and often unable to withstand the tedious construction.

Sanjeev Rane works for Drip Drop Drizzle, ‘green partner’ in the construction of National Expressway 1, between Vadodara and Ahmedabad. Rane admitted that not one tree had survived transplantation five years on. He cites several reasons for this failure. “It is imperative that trees that are indigenous to the region be used, for they can withstand the trauma of transplantation. Trees also need to be protected against natural forces such as wind or animals, and proper guards need to be created around them. Often, due to budgetary constraints, that is not the case.”

As per data released by the Gujarat government, transplantation and translocation had been carried out for the last five years, and the success rate has been between 8.5-51 per cent. This makes transplantation a rather risky strategy. Since the contract for transplantation is usually awarded to a private agency, (such as Drip Drop Drizzle), which in turn is a partner brought in by the construction company, there is neither ownership of the project, nor accountability.

While national highways constitute just 1.7 per cent of the total 33 lakh km road network of India, according to NHAI’s website, they manage 40 per cent of India’s total road traffic. The government has announced that the transplantation of trees along national highways will help it achieve its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution goals, and create a carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes, provided the trees survive. Privatising the planting of trees is a stop-gap solution, and several examples from the past prove: transplantation is unprofitable. As reported by The Hindu earlier, 74 per cent of transplantations have failed in 11 forest circles in Maharashtra in a 10-year evaluation period (2004-2014). While ₹1,500 crore has been spent on afforestation in Karnataka in the last 30 years, forest cover went down by 2,898 sq km between 1997-2011. With the new bill now in place, we might be going ahead with an ecologically disastrous decision.

Published on May 13, 2016

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