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How citizen initiatives are saving Mumbai's fallen trees

Residents are rescuing old trees that fell during Cyclone Tauktae either by spending from their pockets or by crowdfunding

Sanjiv Valsan (second from right) in the Andheri society where 10 trees fell and were transplanted within the premises. (Rajesh Bahal)

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On the night of 17 May, when Cyclone Tauktae brought strong winds and heavy rain to the west coast, Neil Lobo heard a loud sound outside his house in Khar, Mumbai’s western suburb. The next morning, he saw that a Peltophorum pterocarpum, or copperpod tree, had fallen.

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“It was unbelievable. I had never imagined this tree would fall as it’s at least 50 years old. It was a huge, magnificent tree,” says Lobo. A member of Shine, a citizens’ group, he got in touch with a tree expert and raised funds for it to be transplanted to a playground maintained by the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) nearby. “It’s growing shoots now,” says Lobo excitedly.

Subsequently, the local church asked him to save two trees on its campus. “After the success of the Peltophorum, people are considering saving the tree first instead of getting the BMC to clear it off,” he says.

Even the BMC is showing signs of a renewed focus on tree management. In March, the tree authority committee decided only native species would be planted on government property going forward. Jitendra Pardeshi, BMC’s superintendent of gardens department and a committee member, says that over the past one and a half years, many trees have fallen, or suffered damage, due to heavy monsoon rains and more frequent cyclonic conditions. In 2020, 1,360 trees fell in common and private properties across this city with 2.9 million trees, the highest figure since 2017. A majority of these tend to be non-native species.

May was the first time in nearly five decades that a cyclone’s path came so close to the city, about 150km from the coast. Mumbai received a record 230mm of rain, with wind speeds of up to 113 kmph, over the 24 hours that Tauktae battered it. According to the official count, over 800 trees were uprooted, more than half of them non-native species. News reports from the time offer a comparison of the scale of damage: Tree fall complaints to the BMC during the entire monsoon season (June-September) average about 600.

Several societies across the city are, meanwhile, doing what they can. One on Peddar Road, for instance, collected money to transplant an old banyan tree that had crashed into the compound wall to Priyadarshini Park, a kilometre away. Susieben Shah, general secretary of the Malabar Hill Citizens Forum that maintains the park, grew up in the Peddar Road society. “This tree has been there since the time I was a young girl. So when it fell I thought I lost a near and dear one.” In Andheri, a society committee replanted (straightening and planting a tree at the same spot) 10 fallen trees aged 12-35 years within its compound.

“There is a misconception that a fallen tree is a dead tree. The other misconception is that transplanting or translocating trees is an expensive affair,” says Sanjiv Valsan, who is leading the voluntary #PedBachaoPedLagao campaign that’s driving tree plantation in the city’s Aarey forest. It isn’t. Translocation costs 10,000-15,000 per tree, depending on the distance, says the photographer, film-maker and environmentalist. Replanting costs about 6,000, he adds.

It’s worth attempting, since saplings cannot compensate for mature trees. “I remember an old lady giving an analogy that ‘it’s like a mother has fallen down, and instead of treating her, you say let’s focus on replacing her with a new daughter’,” says Valsan.

Within a week of Cyclone Tauktae, he started a campaign, “Save Mumbai’s fallen trees”, on the crowdfunding platform Milaap. They have raised 1 lakh; another 50,000 has come from acquaintances and other networks. Campaign volunteers have managed to transplant or translocate nearly 30 trees. Valsan says some can't be transplanted close to where they stood if the roots have space to grow due to concretisation. “You shouldn’t plant these trees in the same spot where they stood earlier because these places are cemented or asphalted making it unsuitable for the trees to catch root. That’s why they fell in the first place,” he adds.

Survival post-translocation depends on the species and the expertise with which it has been done, says Valsan. In certain species, he has seen a 90% success rate. Given the limited funds and manpower, the volunteers are focusing on trees with the best chances of survival.

In March, BMC's tree authority committee decided on planting only native species of trees henceforth. According to the circular, when an old tree falls, the attempt will be to replant that tree after trimming it. However, if that’s not possible, a fruiting tree of five to 10 years of age or another other native tree of 12 to 20 ft height should be planted so that they grow fast. It also states that as far as possible, non fruit trees should be planted near the roads.

The BMC also hired an arborist for a risk assessment in June to conduct a pilot project in D-ward, which includes Malabar Hill, Tardeo and Peddar Road. About 150 trees will be assessed on structural, visual and health parameters. “We want to use new innovative technology to save trees. Many a times, you can’t assess the health of a tree by merely looking at it,” Pardeshi said.

According to Vaibhav Raje, the arborist who is leading the pilot project and partner at Treecotech in Mumbai, tree management has been done largely in an unorganized way in the country. "It’s usually done in a firefighting mode once the tree or a branch falls. Trees have to be managed throughout all seasons and not just monsoon,” says Raje.

Raje believes that the recent decisions in tree management indicate a change in approach. “What’s more important, however, is going back to the drawing board and changing our urban design planning and approach. Look at Singapore, where trees have take precedence in urban planning; the underground utilities are also planned in a way they don’t harm the roots of the trees. All this requires lot strong political drive,” he says.

While that’s an ongoing effort, Valsan believes there is a need to incentivize contractors, who cut the tree, to save the trees instead. “Right now the incentive is to generate income from the wood. The tree authority is currently a tree cutting permission authority rather than saving authority. We need more experts in the committee rather than corporators, and we need to incentivize the ground staff in saving trees instead of mindlessly hacking them,” he says.

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