A tropical cyclone named Tauktae struck the Indian state of Gujarat on May 17, 2021.

Back from the dead: a local initiative is saving fallen trees in India’s most populated city

Although government led transplantation failed because of unscientific methods, this citizen led initiative proved them wrong.
Although government led transplantation failed because of unscientific methods, this citizen led initiative proved them wrong.

In May 2021, in the wake of cyclone Tauktae that ravaged the city of Mumbai and uprooted over 800 trees, a citizen-led initiative decided to save the city’s green cover. In the next few days, citizens either transplanted the trees to a nearby spot or moved them to a greener patch of the city. 

“We started this initiative out of necessity because no one else, including authorities, was willing to do anything to save the fallen trees,” said Sanjiv Valsan, who is head of the community-led, conservation initiative Rewilding Aarey. 

Following a cost-effective and scientific method of transplantation, the volunteers saw a 90% success rate in the trees that they had transplanted since May 2021. While government agencies have assumed that tree transplantation does not work, this community-led  movement showed that if there is willingness and if scientific method is followed, it can be successful. 

Initially, they started a crowdfunding campaign to finance their activities. In the next few months they transplanted over 35 trees, found in ravaged conditions in different parts of the city, including  post-transplantation care. They have also simultaneously undertaken new plantations and tree repairings.

As of late March 2022, Valsan has been catering for several transplanted trees. At the same time they have been negotiating to transplant another 100 year old tree that will otherwise be cut to leave space for real estate construction in the city.

Development projects across cities of India have resulted in trees being cut down, including in Mumbai. Mumbai has a per capita tree cover of 0.28, or one tree for every four persons, according to a 2017 report by the Mumbai- based NGO Praja. 

A study published in Springer Nature in July 2020 found a 42.5% drop in Mumbai’s green cover due to development activities over 30 years. The ratio of green spaces to total geographical area dropped from 46.7% in 1988 to 26.67% in 2018. 

“Tree transplantation is a story of ecology, not about one tree,” said Sasirekha Sureshkumar, an associate professor and head of department of Botany at Mumbai-based Mithibai College. “We risk losing that ecosystem when we cut down a tree,” she added.

Tree transplantation is a measure to counter deforestation. Trees also have a cooling effect on cities to avoid heat islands and they also support biodiversity and fight air pollution. Experts said tree transplantation should not be the first step, but a last resort when trees are being chopped. The first step is to save the tree.

Sanjiv Valsan watering a transplanted tree. The aftercare in transplantation is equally important, he tells us. Photo credits: Priyanka Khatry 

How to transplant a tree

Without exactly knowing where to start, Valsan decided to team up with a horticulturist and a few arborists, who would guide them free of charge, throughout the process. “It was a struggle initially,” said Valsan, “since tree transplantation is a technical process”.

In spite of his lack of technical knowledge, he still decided to move forward with the project. “While people moaned and exchanged emojis over the loss of green cover, we decided to actually do something,” he said.

Essentially, Valsan went through trial and error in order to find the best ways to ensure tree survival, he said. The process for transplanting varied from tree to tree. For some trees, they had to take out the entire root ball along with soil, trim the canopy to fit the width of the trailer truck used for transportation.

For damaged trees, the process included giving medication to keep them alive. “First step is to apply fungicide to the torn, rotten places that can be prone to fungal rot,” said Valsan. Other medicines include rooting hormone powder to encourage regrowth of roots after replanting and termicide to prevent termite infestation of the dead roots. 

In 2017, during the work of a metro shed in the Aarey forests of Mumbai, over 1,072 trees were approved for transplantation with a budget of Rs 5.36 crore for transplanting them. But, a Bombay High Court-appointed committee found in a 2019 report that over 60% of trees transplanted for the Metro 3 project had died due to inadequate tree care and lack of scientific transplanting methods. 

After-care is a mandatory part of transplantation for Valsan. Several of his volunteers do spot-checks on trees that have been transplanted. However, according to Valsan, post-transplantation care has started becoming unfeasible due to the growing number of trees and limited number of volunteers. 

fallen trees
Sanjiv Valsan of the Rewilding Aarey movement transplanting a tree. Trees can be transplanted through a scientific process, which Valsan learned through a trial and error method. Photo credits: Deepti Nayar

Saving fallen trees

For Valsan and his co-volunteers, the process has not always been smooth. Properly restoring the trees came with some unexpected challenges.

In the first place, many of the trees that were transplanted fell down in areas causing inconvenience to the locals. “We had to transplant it before the authorities would come to chop off the tree to get out of the way,” said Valsan.

Finding an alternative space in Mumbai’s densely populated streets was also difficult.

“We had to negotiate with the locals as well as the authorities to obtain free space. Our experience was varied: in some places people readily agreed, in others not so much,” said Valsan.

Ultimately, transplanting the tree itself is not cheap in itself. Operations can be more cost-effective if they take care of multiple trees at once. But, based on Valsan’s experience, a single tree transplantation can cost as less as 6000 Indian rupees and can go as high as 300,000 Indian rupees (from 80 to 4,000 USD approximately). 

The benefits, however, are worth the effort, professor Sureshkumar said. Restoring the fallen trees has an effect on the entire ecosystem, as it supports wildlife, microorganisms, recharges groundwater and provides clean oxygen, she added. “The value of a single tree is much beyond any number of saplings,” said the botanist. 

While government agencies under the Bombay Municipal corporation have been asked to undertake transplantation, there is no uniform process set yet. In addition, the penalty for failure has not worked as a deterrent, leading to the death of 60% of transplanted trees. Further, with frequent and intense cyclonic conditions and heavy monsoon rains, many additional trees have fallen and suffered damage.

“We have no illusion that we would be able to save all the trees in Mumbai. Our intention is just to foster the narrative that fallen trees can be saved,” said Valsan. “Our next step is to advocate for policy measures  supporting tree transplantation,” he added.

This story is supported by One Earth and Climate Tracker’s Solutions Reporting Fellowship.

Flavia Lopes
Flavia Lopes is environment reporter with IndiaSpend, a data news platform based in India. She has previously written for Wire, Article 12, BehanBox and was a mobile journalism fellow with Internews and a media fellow with Rising Flame. She is also a graduate of Conflict Studies from London School of Economics. When not working on stories, you can find her cooking, journaling or learning new languages. Currently, she is trying her luck with Farsi.