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Grow Trees is increasing India's forest cover

May 27, 2018 10:27 IST

Growing trees means much more than strewing seeds around; it takes an understanding of local climatic conditions, indigenous strains and partnership with local communities.
Arundhuti Dasgupta and Rajesh Bhayani report.

Leafy lanes in Mumbai are getting increasingly hard to spot, almost as rare as the leisure time that the city affords its working class. But trees still dominate the bylanes of Colaba, where the office of Grow Trees is located.

This is a not-for-profit set up by Pradip Shah, founder-managing director of Crisil, the country's first ratings agency and founder-CEO of IndAsia Fund.

Shah says the idea of planting trees as a way of life, not merely revelling in their grandeur or looking at them as an inheritance, came to him on a trip to Israel. He was being felicitated for his assistance in setting up a local credit rating agency and, in his honour, the government planted 100 trees.

It was a revelation, he says.

Local children planting saplings

IMAGE: Local children in Sariska planting saplings. Photograph: Kind courtesy Grow Trees

Israel is a small country, which plants roughly 2.5 million trees a year! So why not India?

There are about 20,000 tree species in the world and India has one of the largest tree treasuries.

And every day there is talk of forests being denuded, elephant corridors being destroyed and tigers running into human settlements.

Approximately 45 per cent of India's land is degraded due to deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, mining and excessive groundwater extraction.

The good news is that more than two-thirds of this can be regenerated.

Kunal Shah, Co Founder, Grow Trees planting saplings

IMAGE: Kunal Shah, Co Founder, Grow Trees planting saplings. Photograph: Kind courtesy Grow Trees

Trees are an easy and obvious way to counter the damage.

At the organisation, projects are tailored around real-life environmental problems.

For instance, the 'Trees for Tigers' project at the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Alwar, Rajasthan, has over the past five years planted 250,000 trees on the reserve periphery. Croma, the digital and electronic appliances retail arm of the Tata group, supported the project.

Similarly, Larsen & Toubro worked with Grow Trees to create a plantation of 11,250 trees in Nimbhora, a region in Maharashtra ravaged by drought.

Shah and his son Karan are directors of Grow Trees, which is run by a small team of 12 people.

Environmentalist Supriya Patil, who heads its business development programme, says they have been working to increase awareness about trees among lay-people and industrial houses alike.

Why do we need them?

How can they help create livelihoods?

And why is it good business to grow trees?

Growing saplings in a nursery for distributon all over India

IMAGE: Growing saplings in a nursery for distributon all over India. These include saplings of Indian Plum, Neem, Salai, Sahajan, Babul, Sheesham, Lemon, Papaya and Aonla. Photograph: Kind courtesy Grow Trees

Shah says his son and he knew their outfit had to be a viable proposition. Countless not-for-profits have fallen by the wayside when they ran out of funds.

"We came up with the idea of Greet with Trees, so if someone planted a tree, s/he would get some gratification through a 'tree certificate'. The idea was that people should do it because they wanted to do something for the environment but they should also get something so that there is some stickiness in the relationship," Shah explains.

It was an unusual idea, but companies bought it, gradually at first, and now more enthusiastically.

Grow Trees has corporate sponsors, schools and embassies as well as hundreds of individual supporters on the list.

One can 'greet with a tree' for just Rs 85, a price that Shah says his team is working to bring down further.

Locals filling soil in bags for distribution of the saplings

IMAGE: Locals fill soil in bags for distribution of the saplings. Photograph: Kind courtesy Grow Trees

Patil explains they are trying to make planting a habit. For that, the price is important and so is advocacy and awareness work.

Grow Trees works closely with several environmental NGOs, local community groups and government bodies.

Growing trees means much more than strewing seeds around; it takes an understanding of local climatic conditions, indigenous strains and partnership with local communities.

Grow Trees is not the only organisation involved in increasing forest cover, but it is among the few in the world to offer planting audits.

Shah brings to bear his long association with ratings and audits here: "We have an independent tree auditing firm. We also plant only on public land." The organisation replants trees at its own expense if there is a loss.

Local women of Mewar, Rajasthan

IMAGE: Local women of Mewar, Rajasthan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Grow Trees

Grow Trees has also, over the years, set up a process to improve the chances of survival for its plantations.

Given the huge water stresses, community clashes and other external issues, saplings do not always grow to adulthood.

The choice of partner, the species of tree being planted and ensuring that there is enough time to care for the sapling are critical factors.

And that takes time, money and an undimmed passion for the environment.

Arundhuti Dasgupta and Rajesh Bhayani
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