Delhi to expand tree adoption policy, citizens push for tree census first

Trees in Delhi

Trees in Delhi. Photo source Wikimedia commons

  • Delhi’s Tree Authority is planning a tree adoption policy as part of its efforts to preserve the trees of the capital. Facilitating tree adoption has been mentioned in the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994.
  • Experts say that before policies to preserve trees, such as tree adoption by citizens, the government needs to first conduct a tree census.
  • A proposal to conduct a tree census has been discussed by the Tree Authority at several points, however, it has not been implemented. As per the recent Tree Authority meeting, a tree census is scheduled soon.

The Tree Authority, Delhi, is planning to introduce a tree adoption policy that will facilitate interested individuals, corporations and institutions to adopt, maintain and preserve trees in the capital. Meanwhile, those closely monitoring tree felling in the city are sceptical about the plan because of poor implementation of past commitments by the authorities. They also say there is not enough staff to execute the plan and essential tree-related data such as species, age, health of the trees is also not available – something which should be prepared before the adoption of trees.

The tree adoption policy, which is to be implemented by the Department of Forest and Wildlife (DFW) and the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD), will be an extension of a similar scheme implemented by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and expanded beyond the municipal limits to cover the entire capital. The MCD has already introduced an online portal for tree adoption.

In a Tree Authority meeting held on August 30, it was decided that the DFW and GNTCD will assess the MCD scheme and present the proposal for its extension in the forthcoming meeting. This August 30 meeting was held after a Delhi High Court directive on July 31 instructed the Tree Authority, Delhi to convene a meeting by August 31 and submit a comprehensive status report by September 4.

A felled tree in Delhi's posh colony
A felled tree in a residential colony in Delhi. Photo by Bhavreen Kandhari.

Bhavreen Kandhari, the founder of Warrior Moms, a pan-India initiative of mothers fighting air pollution and other environmental issues, says that by including tree adoption by citizens, as a way of tree preservation, the authorities are shifting part of the responsibility, to the citizens. She expresses the contradiction of the government, noting that, “On one hand, we are encouraged to plant and adopt trees, but on the other hand, mature trees are being cut down without much thought. The government has plans to plant some 10 million saplings in its Winter Action Plan, but it’s hard to see the point when five grown trees are being cut down every hour,” she claims. “We are facing a serious public health crisis and we should be doing everything we can to save these mature trees,” she adds.

Urban ecologist, Vallari Sheel, a resident of Vasant Vihar, alleges that the tree adoption policy is a way for the forest department to improve its image. “They are cutting thousands of trees every day. What will citizens do to protect them? Even if someone adopts a tree, they’re uncertain about its future – it might be chopped down any day,” says Sheel, who is pursuing her Ph.D. from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University, USA, remotely. She, however, acknowledges that engaging people and encouraging stewardship is a positive aspect of the initiative.

Both Kandhari and Sheel emphasised the need for proper data on Delhi’s trees, such as species identity, health, geographical details etc., before moving ahead with any other plans on conserving trees.

Aditya N. Prasad, an advocate involved in multiple court cases regarding tree protection in Delhi, says that while the authorities have discussed tree adoption before, there has not been much progress on it. In 2022, media reports said that the Delhi Forest Department is working on a policy that will allow tree adoption. It was in an initial discussion stage at that time but now, even after a year, there is no implementation plan charted out.

Prasad points out that the prevailing act (the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994) calls for conducting a tree census. This should precede the adoption and other plans to preserve trees, he says. He adds that Section 13 of the act notes that the Tree Authority should specify rules, including reaching out to the original tree owners for any objections, subject to which tree adoption procedures can take place. Prasad highlights that a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is required for tree adoption.

Tree census, a long pending work

According to the minutes of the Tree Authority meeting on August 30, the tree census will begin with isolated patches and green areas/city forests managed by the DFW. The census data, based on parameters such as location, land type, GPS coordinates, circumference and tree health, will be presented in the next Tree Authority meeting.

Prasad is not convinced that this census will actually take place. “The authority has been discussing a census for years, yet practical steps have yet to be taken,” he said. The authority organised the recent meeting only after a court order, he pointed out.

A tree is being concretised in concrete in Vasant Vihar. In a census conducted by volunteers, citizens found that approximately 3,500 trees out of a total of 5,000 are concretised in concrete in the area.
Concrete around a tree in Vasant Vihar. In a census in the area, conducted by citizen volunteers, they found that approximately 3,500 trees out of a total of 5,000 had concrete filled in close to the trunk. Photo by Vallari Sheel.

The tree census has been pending in Delhi for about three decades. The Tree Authority, constituted under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, is tasked with preserving trees, conducting tree censuses, developing and maintaining nurseries, and evaluating proposals from government departments and private entities regarding construction projects. However, as Prasad notes, little progress has been made.

Similar commitments have been made earlier, too. In a meeting in 2012, members discussed various aspects of the tree census, including methodology, scale, costs and involved agencies. In 2013, the authority once again raised the idea of conducting a tree census, providing details about trees, their scientific names, and girth, but this initiative failed to materialise. In 2017, the department admitted “..conducting tree census is a herculean task requiring large manpower and so could not be undertaken by the forest department. It was felt that, ideally, such a task could be dealt by a separate Directorate of Census to track the health and number of trees. It was decided that the different land-owning agencies like PWD, CPWD, IF& CD, MCD, NDMC, DDA, etc., and RWAs owning land over which trees are standing may be asked to prepare an inventory of trees owned by them at their own level.”

Mongabay India talked to Amit Anand, the Additional Charge of Conservator of Forest in the Government of Delhi, regarding the tree census and adoption policy.

He explained that the census will commence on a pilot basis in select areas before being expanded to cover the entire city of Delhi. When questioned about previous commitments made by the department to conduct a census, he emphasised that a census is a rigorous scientific process. Without proper scientific methods and documentation, it holds little significance. He acknowledged that the department lacks the capacity to undertake this task alone, emphasising the need for collaboration across various departments. “We can only take on what we can chew,” he added.

Regarding concerns from the public that the census should precede the adoption policy, he expressed a differing view. He mentioned that the census could be carried out at various stages, such as during plantation or disease assessment. “We are currently in the process of preparing our report, which will be submitted to the Tree Authority,” Anand stated.

Defunct authority and public effort

In 2021, Prasad wrote a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Delhi government, in which he pointed out that the Tree Authority is mandated to meet at least once in three months as per Section 4 of the Delhi Preservation of Tree Act (DPTA), 1994 but the meetings have not been scheduledaccording to the mandate.

It should have met at least 104 times till 2021 since it was constituted on July 24, 1995. However, the Tree Authority has met only eight times till 2021, he wrote in the letter. The last meeting was also held only after the court’s intervention.

In Delhi, a mini-truck carrying timber. Previously, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has also highlighted the inadequacy in the functioning of the Tree Authority. Photo by Bhavreen Kandhari.
A vehicle carrying timber in Delhi. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has highlighted the inadequacy in the functioning of the Tree Authority of Delhi. Photo by Bhavreen Kandhari.

In past, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has also highlighted the inadequacy in the functioning of the Tree Authority of Delhi. In a report that appeared in 2017, CAG revealed that out of the required 12 meetings, only one meeting was conducted within the audited period of 2014-2017.  “Absence of regular meetings indicate lack of seriousness in its approach towards preservation of trees and afforestation,” it concluded.

Prasad told Mongabay India that Delhi’s Tree Authority has insufficient workforce or technical capability to conduct the census or monitor the well-being of trees after adoption. Without an active Tree Authority, citizens are trying to conduct a census at their level by manual count and observation. Such censuses were conducted in Vasant Vihar, Saryodaya Enclave and Saket, etc.

Mongabay India talked to Vallari Sheel, who led the census in Vasant Vihar. She gives the details of the census conducted in 2015-16, saying that the volunteers found some 5,000 street trees, of which 3,500 were concretised around the trunk. As per the National Green Tribunal order, one-metre radius of the trunk should be kept free from any concrete development. The census in Vasant Vihar also revealed that several trees have nails, barbed wires, or similar objects around them. Additionally, around 793 trees were found to be infested with termites. Based on the findings, the Delhi High Court has ordered the authorities (MCD and PWD) to de-concretise trees in Vasant Vihar.

“The concept revolved around the belief that having a database with the count of trees would discourage tree cutting. While it might not eliminate tree felling completely, it would improve the situation. Additionally, we anticipated that the local community would gain knowledge about the trees in their vicinity through the census process,” she added.


Banner image: The tree census has been pending in Delhi for about three decades. Photo by Aleksandr Zykov from Russia/Wikimedia Commons.

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