The other side of global warming

More than 3 million trees are felled each year to clear the way for public infrastructure projects, according to official estimates. In response to a question from parliament in March, the environment minister replied that nearly 31 lakh (3.1 million) trees had been felled for the construction and development of public infrastructure projects across the country. India in 2020-21.

He added that nearly 10 times that number have been planted. However, many other reports have highlighted the poor performance of these planting campaigns in terms of survival rates, and in any case, this cannot really compensate for the often strong and spreading trees and their communities that are lost.

The actual loss can be much higher when counting trees cut for all development work, including private work. The official estimate does not count a single tree cut in Delhi and may underestimate the loss in several places. Over the years, there have been several cases of excessive felling. In any case, the felling of large trees often damages or destroys several younger trees and plants in their vicinity.

Additionally, the number of trees lost to infrastructure projects is expected to increase significantly. One of the reasons is that some projects involving very large-scale cuts are to be implemented in the near future. For example, the Ken-Betwa River Link project in central India involves the destruction of 2.3 million trees according to official estimates made several years ago.

According to knowledgeable people monitoring this project, since the initial estimate, several small trees have grown in the protected forest area and will also be felled according to tree circumference-based felling rules. Therefore, the loss of trees is likely to be over 3 million for this project alone, a loss that can still be avoided, but only if the efforts of many conservationists and local communities for the complete removal of this poorly planned project and disastrous succeed.

As of now, the government seems eager to go ahead with this project with all its misdeeds, inconsistencies and false assumptions.

The second reason why tree felling linked to major infrastructure projects could soon increase dramatically is that India is in the midst of the largest ever financial allocations to highway projects, including the widening existing highways. Such projects have seen some of the biggest tree kills, including well-grown trees and even fruit trees.

Surveys of villagers living near highway projects reveal that the number of trees felled is often higher than our governments allow. Investigations, including those carried out by government appointed committees, have revealed that due caution is not being exercised in terms of minimizing the loss of trees and, in fact, the destruction is far higher than what one might call inevitable.

What is of great concern is that many of these large trees are dying in ecologically crucial areas, including the Himalayan region and the catchments of major rivers.

It is clear that there is an urgent need to make the best possible effort to try to save as many endangered trees as possible, and in fact there are many possibilities for this. No damage to development will occur and, in fact, there will be a huge saving of scarce resources if fundamentally ill-planned projects, which may also inflict other damage, are abandoned. If a careful and honest exercise is carried out to limit road widening only to the extent strictly necessary, this can also save a lot of trees.

The task will be greatly facilitated if the opinion of the local populations is sufficiently solicited on the possibilities of saving the threatened trees. Genuine social cost-benefit analysis of various projects should be ordered again, this time making it entirely free of those who derive financial benefit from project contracts, legally and illegally. The multiple contributions of trees must be carefully considered, including their protective role for birds and other species.

It is sincerely hoped that if such careful assessment replaces the current trend of bulldozing projects fueled by financial gains, many valuable trees can still be saved and other related damage can also be reduced.

Although the analysis here has been carried out in the context of India, it is clear that much of it is also true for most other countries and, in fact, there have been signs of gross neglect of the possibilities to save trees in many countries. The call of these threatened trees must no longer be ignored.

Teresa H. Sadler