An estimated 5,000 trees have fallen in and around Kolkata as cyclone Amphan’s fury ripped through the city on 21 May, according to Mayor Firhad Hakim. Large trees, snapped at their roots, crashing into vehicles and houses, has been a defining image of the cyclonic storm’s wrath.
Experts point out the falling of trees is a serious recurring issue in the city. One that has yet again been exposed albeit on a larger scale by the super cyclone.
On 17 April 2018, a squall that swept through Kolkata toppled 150 trees. In August 2016, 120 trees fell during a 70km/hour storm killing four people. In May 2009, cyclone Aila that brushed past the city with wind speed of 120 km/hour, had uprooted 1,875 trees.
The seriousness of the issue even led Calcutta High Court to pass an order as recently as July 2019 and reprimand the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in strong words for its negligence.
The question then is, why do trees get uprooted in such large numbers whenever a storm hits the city?
The answer is written in concrete.
Experts explained that the primary reason for this is the indiscriminate use of concrete at the base of trees. This prevents the tree’s roots from growing naturally to their full capacity by denying it adequate water and soil.
A Concrete Cause
A tree should have at least 50 cubit feet of soil for the roots to expand and develop properly, environment and urban planning experts say. In Kolkata, the trees get one-fifth of that, about 10 cubic feet, to hold their ground.
"“The massive scale of damage that trees have suffered could’ve been much lower. But by laying concrete pavements around trees, there is little space for trees to gather roots. This is why they get uprooted with such alarming frequency.”" - Arjan Basu Roy, secretary, Nature Mates, a Kolkata-based organisation, told The Quint
Additionally, public buses, private vehicles, boundary walls have been among the casualties of trees that have been uprooted.
Basu Roy points out that pavements have been raised with concrete to a height of 1 to 1.5 meters in several parts of the city. “Roots grow both vertically and horizontally. Concrete bases have severely restricted the horizontal expansion of roots,” he added.
While faulty pavement design around trees is one aspect, Kolkata has also seen a spike in concrete bases three-feet tall around the trunks of trees on footpaths.
The root cause of the problem, however, lies not just in what's below the surface. Basu Roy also highlighted that the indiscriminate pruning of tree branches robs trees of their inherent stability.
“We keep pruning branches as per our requirements. This causes imbalance in the tree’s structure and a strong wind can topple it and that’s what happened in many cases,” he said.
The Quint spoke with senior officials of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) on plans regarding reviving the lost greenery in the city. The official said that replanting trees will depend on policy decisions that will be taken once the clearing of uprooted trees has been completed.
“It won’t be feasible to plant new trees before monsoon arrives. However, an order will be sent after a policy review is undertaken and only then will there be clarity,” said the officer, a senior engineer at KMC.
Demolish Concrete Bases Around Trees: Calcutta HC
In June 2019, Pradeep Kakkar, founder member of environmental group People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC), filed a writ petition in Calcutta High Court seeking the demolition of unauthorised concrete structures around the base of large trees.
Speaking with The Quint, Kakkar said there are two ways the KMC “allowed damage to be done. One, KMC allowed these structures to be built. And second, complete negligence by KMC in acting on it even when we brought it up with the corporation for 18 months before moving court, and even filed RTIs to find out who permitted these to be built.
In response, the KMC filed an affidavit denying:
- its department had constructed concrete structures around the base of trees.
- it had granted permission to private entities to build the concrete structures.
Moreover, Santanu Roy, deputy chief engineer in KMC’s Parks and Squares Department, also stated in the affidavit that an expert committee needs to ascertain whether the concrete structures “may be the cause of weakening trees and/or reducing its ability to withstand storm and wind.”
On 19 July, a bench of Chief Justice TB Radhakrishnan and Justice Arijit Banerjee ordered Kolkata Municipal Corporation to demolish all concrete bases around trees and submit an Action Taken Report in August.
The division bench reprimanded KMC in strong words and expressed “surprise” that a PIL had to be moved to alert the corporation about unauthorised structures.
The bench even went on to state, “We have reasons to believe that the officers concerned have deliberately turned their Nelsonian eyes towards these unauthorised acts.”
Kakkar highlighted that the indiscriminate concretisation around trees has emerged as a result of poor civic planning and local councillors, businesses and authorities profiting from such structures coming up.
“We have also raised before the court the issue of pedestrian safety. Large concrete bases take up pavement space forcing people to walk on roads,” said Kakkar.
“The issue now is, with trees having fallen, this will give opportunity those with vested interests to claim the spot vacated by the tree to grab the pavement,” he added.
In an interim report submitted by the KMC to the division bench, it claimed to have demolished concrete structures around the bases of 900 trees.
Kakkar said the way forward now is to ensure there is proper thought and planning before any planting. The right kind of trees need to be planted in the right places, and need to meet the criteria of providing shade, fighting pollution, and enhancing the aesthetic value of public spaces.
. Read more on India by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsConcrete Evidence: Why 5,000 Trees Were Uprooted During Amphan . Read more on India by The Quint.