Forests

‘We will only wake up when sal trees have been driven to the brink of extinction’

The ‘treeman of Delhi’, Pradip Krishen talks to Down To Earth about the recent decision to cut 2,500 British-era sal trees on the Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand border

 
By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 07 January 2021

A sal grove near Dehradun. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsThe National Board for Wildlife gave final clearance to the Ganeshpur-Dehradun Road (NH72A), an extension of the Delhi-Dehradun expressway January 5, 2021. Wildlife clearance was required as a 19.78-km stretch of road — from Ganeshpur (in Uttar pardesh) to Dehradun — will pass through the eco-sensitive zone of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and the Shivalik Elephant Reserve.

The project will entail the axing of 2,500 Sal trees in Uttarakhand. The state will also have to give up 10 hectares of reserve forest that is part of the eco-sensitive zone of Rajaji.

Down To Earth spoke to the ‘treeman of Delhi’, Pradip Krishen about the development. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: What is your first reaction to this development?

Pradip Krishen: Dismay. But also, barely any surprise. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for governments and engineers to say, ‘OK, we need a road. Let’s do everything we possibly can to make sure that we impact forests and forest trees as little as possible.’

Why is it axiomatic that there is no concern at all on the part of the authorities to minimise the impacts of development on forests and wilderness? The answer, surely, must lie in how little they know, how little they are sensitised to these issues.

 RG: Do sal trees have a particular significance?

PK: The sal tree is a Dipterocarp, that is a significant and ancient family of very tall, emergent trees from tropical biomes girdling the globe from the Americas and Africa, all the way across Asian tropical forests.

India doesn’t have a lot of Dipterocarps. What we have are mostly clustered in the south, in the Western Ghats and the only remnant of our northern Dipterocarps is the sal tree — Shorea robusta — which has a narrow, umbrella-handle-shaped distribution all the way along the base of the Himalayas, curving back from Bengal and Odisha into western Madhya Pradesh.

 

Some time in the middle of the nineteenth century, the British learnt how useful sal timber was, specially for structural (as opposed to cabinet) work and the great project of constructing the railways started to use sal ‘sleepers’ as the preferred timber.

This is when foresters began to look more closely at the distribution of sal and tried to grow it elsewhere in plantations. Interestingly, foresters never succeeded in growing sal trees outside the very restricted zone where they grow naturally.

No one seems to know exactly why it is so difficult to grow sal trees outside its natural zone. Maybe it has something to do with special qualities of the soil in its natural biome. Or perhaps it involves the relationship between the sal’s roots and fungal mycorrhiza in the soil.

This puzzle persists. Sal continues to be restricted to undisturbed remnant patches of old growth trees in its natural biome. But now, many gaps have opened up in this range.

Tea estates in the Dooars (northern West Bengal), for example, were carved out of sal forests and so sal is already on the retreat.

I think it’s crucial for policy- and decision-makers to understand that almost anywhere else in the cognizant world, sal trees would be beneficiaries of stringent conservation, backed by enthusiastic public support.

Not here. This is very sad. We will probably only wake up when sal trees have been driven to the brink of extinction.

RG: What could be the effects of cutting down these sal trees in an area like the Shivaliks? 

PK: The sal tree, like the tiger in it its habitat, is the charismatic tree of its biome. Everything that grows in sal forests has a pivotal relationship with these tall emergents — whether as understorey shrubs and trees, foraging photons from the light filtering through the sal’s canopy, or even just sharing the soil and its minerals and microbes with this community of trees.

We know very little about what happens microbially below the ground in a sal forest, but there are enough indicators that when sal starts to disappear, it has catastrophic cascading results for all the other members of its forest community.

RG: Afforestation would be a no-brainer in this case, do you think?

PK: If you mean ‘will compensatory afforestation offer any kind of solution’, then the answer is a resounding ‘No’! Our forest departments have no training or aptitude in restoring forests with native plants. It would be completely delusional to think that the solution is to cut down all these trees and then plant some more. It won’t happen. It will remain on paper.

RG: Why do you think forestry and wildlife are taken so lightly in this country?

PK: It is at least partly because all of us who care about the environment haven’t done nearly enough to teach politicians and the public at large about how and why the environment matters.

We need to reach out more, spread the word. Not with pious do-gooding exhortations, but with hard-hitting facts and figures. I think this could make a difference. Specially, if we can reach and influence a large constituency of ordinary people.

We need to accept this responsibility.

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