Last week the road transport ministry gave a go-ahead to the Green Highway (plantation and maintenance) Policy. The policy among other things (hopefully) will finally end the 40 year old practice of planting eucalyptus along the road. It is a legacy of an era where environment concerns were at best cursory. Many environmentalists blame late Sanjay Gandhi for eucalyptus mania.
He promoted it for some time for sure, however, to be fair to the man, he was quick to realise his mistake and told his sycophantic supporters and ready-to-please bureaucrats to stop the practice but by that time it was too late. Nurseries were full of them and a whole business model had developed around plantation of these trees. He was soon voted out of power and didn’t survive for long after his return three years later. So the practice of planting eucalyptus became the default setting for the ministry of road transport.
It is in this regard the policy should be viewed with relief and hope. What happened almost 40 years ago was an aberration and not the rule. Some recommendations of the policy make it clear that trees providing shade will be planted as the first line of defence. In the second row fruit bearing trees would be preferred. This has been done keeping the unruly behaviour of half of our population (male) in mind.
Imagine a mango tree on the roadside loaded with its sweet cargo being assaulted by a group of youngsters with stones and one of their missiles misses the target and lands on a speeding car –Boom!
The policy also makes a distinction that where land is at premium and only one row of saplings can be planted then those species that offer shade, fruit or flowers and are aesthetic will take precedence over any other. These will be jacaranda, gulmohar, amaltas, kachnar and others.
However, as they say, devil lies in the details. The policy paper says that plantation would be delinked from road building. It means the road builder will not be under pressure to plant trees. The work would be undertaken by a specialised agency. It is not clear whether the money for plantation will come from the developers or the government will come forward to foot the bill.
In either case the developer would be a gainer. Facts emanating from the ministry and compiled by many NGOs suggest that the developers, both government and private, have been reluctant tree planters. So if they are let off the hook by freeing them from the responsibility of plantation they would cut any number of trees secured in the belief that it is someone else’s job to plant it.
Another issue is of specialised agencies. There are no specialised agencies in the field of highway plantations. There are chances of large scale bungling with NGOs and fly-by-night operators forming companies and minting money.
The better option is to involve locals. Our government has stopped involving people in solving tricky issues. In the age of crowd sourcing it is working towards centralising everything. This approach keeps a large part of the workforce away from decision making. It also discounts the possibility of engaging with the enormous bank of age old wisdom locked with the local elders who know about the flora and fauna of their land. It will not work — least of all the clause of 90% survival of saplings being planted along the highway.
The best option is to ask the road developers to deposit the plantation money with the government. This corpus should be used to fund village panchayats and cooperatives to either setup a nursery or upgrade the one they have. Villagers should be asked to plant a stretch of road depending upon their population and ability to tend to the saplings.
On an average a village can take care of one kilometre of road. As India has more than 600000 villages, there is enough manpower to take care of at least 600000 kilometres of road that maybe built over a period of 100 years.
Second the government should get into an agreement with the local cooperatives that the land will stay with the government or the developer but the yield of fruits, flowers and wood from the fallen trees (due to decay or storms) will belong to the village panchayat. They would have the exclusive right on it and they can either use it for their own purpose or sell it.
This agreement should be in the form of a 30 year lease agreement with a clause to renegotiate it at the end of the term. Thirty year lease is necessary as many trees would take close to 15 years to reach the age of maturity where they would start giving full benefits.
People’s participation and economic incentive in plantation is the only way long term sustainable development of green cover along the highways can be ensured.
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