These urban forests keep India breathing freely

Preethi Mehra | Updated on: Dec 01, 2018
An 18-month-old forest at Shankarpalli in Telangana, spread out over 40,000 square metres. About 120,000 saplings were planted between June 2015 and December 2015. More than 40 species belong to the Potential Native Vegetation of the region

An 18-month-old forest at Shankarpalli in Telangana, spread out over 40,000 square metres. About 120,000 saplings were planted between June 2015 and December 2015. More than 40 species belong to the Potential Native Vegetation of the region

(From left) Afforestt Executive Director Sunny Verma, Founder Shubhendu Sharma, and Senior Project Coordinator Saleem Ahmed

(From left) Afforestt Executive Director Sunny Verma, Founder Shubhendu Sharma, and Senior Project Coordinator Saleem Ahmed

Using Japanese botanist practices, Afforestt plants native varieties of trees that fight pollution

“P alash, Arjun, Babul, Kalm… ” Sunny Verma, executive director of Afforestt, reeled off the names of the indigenous varieties of trees that have been planted to create an urban forest in the heart of Delhi. Aiming to cleanse the Indian capital of its air pollution, the for-profit social enterprise is one of many Indian ventures taking a stand against climate change through forestry.

The city suffers from bad air quality in both summer and winter, and has a particularly poor track record in tackling it — a problem that is common to much of the country. Last June, the World Health Organisation’s World Global Ambient Air Quality Database showed that 11 of the 12 cities with the worst air quality in the world were in India.

Along with high levels of particulate matter, India also struggles with high CO2 levels in the atmosphere, worsened by the country’s serious depletion of green cover. Although official figures claim that India has increased its green cover since the turn of the century, alternative estimates beg to differ. Global Forest Watch (GFW) — a collaborative project involving the University of Maryland, Google, USGS and NASA — suggests a sharp decline in the country’s green cover and ranks it 14th among those with the greatest tree-cover losses from 2000 to 2010.

Poor implementation

As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, India pledged to “reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030,” but the Central government seems to be dragging its feet on implementation. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recently replied to a public query stating that the administration had not yet issued any orders to the States on how to accomplish the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions. India also vowed to create an additional carbon sink system (a natural or artificially created environment that absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere) that would offset at least 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

Yet, the Delhi government plans to axe almost 17,000 trees to build accommodation for government employees and to develop commercial complexes in upmarket South Delhi. Since last June, hundreds of citizens all over the capital have been protesting against the destruction of crucial green cover, and some have even taken legal action. Several cases against tree-felling in Delhi made their way to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Delhi High Court, which have ruled to suspend the project until they reach a final decision — forcing the government to go back to the drawing board.

Given the Indian administration’s slow progress in fulfilling its commitments, private, public and non-profit initiatives are stepping up to improve the country’s green cover by building urban and rural forests that reduce air and water pollution. Afforestt, for instance, has partnered with other social businesses to plant native varieties of trees, creating 126 urban forests in 50 cities in 11 different countries since its launch in 2011.

Founded by engineer Shubhendu Sharma, the firm operates on an open-source model, teaching individuals and organisations to plant forests in factories, offices or even in their backyards at home.

Fast-growing forests

“Afforestt works with a method that makes forests grow 10 times faster than average,” said Sharma, “thus making a 100-year-old natural forest grow in just 10 years.”

The company uses a method developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, which, unlike commercial forestry, plants only native varieties of trees in selected ratios and sequences, creating multilayer, maintenance-free forests and 100 percent self-sustainable ecosystems. Sharma learned it from Miyawaki himself, thanks to a project to grow a small-scale forest at the Indian headquarters of automobile giant Toyota, where he used to work.

“During the British era, forestry in India meant building forests that could grow produce. Hence, forest research institutes failed to focus on native tree species,” Verma explained. “Miyawaki uses only local species. The forests blend with the local ecosystem, last longer and can exist in urban spaces.”

Fascinated by this technique, Sharma grew a tiny forest in his own backyard and then decided to create Afforestt. Over the years, the social venture has experimented with other techniques, such as natural farming and soil enhancement, to enhance its approach.

Afforestt has forged partnerships with several forestry organisations in India, such as Dharti Amrit (working in deserts in Western India) and the Alaap People’s Foundation (a non-profit that focusses on “greening” the Himalayas). Afforestt trained Alaap’s founder and CEO, Sheeba Sen, to plant a forest at her home. “(Afforestt) subsequently became our technical partner and we reach out to them every time we need assistance,” Sen said.

Such collaborations among businesses, citizens and non-profits are essential to create the green cover the country so badly needs to uphold its international commitments.

Published on December 03, 2018
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