Wednesday, January 25, 2023
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Calling the tree surgeon! Delhi civic body’s tree ambulances help greens survive pests, heat

Most crucial work undertaken by tree ambulances is 'surgery' to help trees recover from infestation by termites, or other pests, which results in the hollowing out of bark from inside.

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New Delhi: Delhi is on a mission to save its trees — from ailments, pest infestations and even the heatwave that has had the national capital wilting this summer. A fleet of ‘tree ambulances’ — to offer on-the-spot ‘surgeries’, or just water, to revive all afflicted vegetation in the city — was rolled out by the erstwhile South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) and East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) earlier this year.

The city’s three civic bodies — SDMC, EDMC and North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) — were reunified into the Municipal Corporation of Delhi Sunday. The corporation had been trifurcated in 2012, when Congress leader Sheila Dikshit was chief minister.

The idea of a tree ambulance is not exactly new. The city’s — and reportedly India’s — first tree ambulance was launched by the New Delhi Municipal Council in 2010. A green truck with a siren and warning lights, it had then come at a cost of Rs 13.5 lakh.

Pankaj, an EDMC employee, was trained to perform ‘tree surgeries’ — treat trees infested with insects or pests — five years ago by the New Delhi Municipal Council. The erstwhile NDMC had also got a tree ambulance in 2012, but doesn’t have any functional units at present.

While the erstwhile EDMC — which had two zones under it (Shahdara north and south) — had two tree ambulances, the SDMC had one for each of its four zones (central, south, west and Najafgarh zone), according to the latter civic body’s horticulture director.

“There were section officers for horticulture in each zone, handling seven to nine wards each. The foremost responsibility of these officers is to take care of all parks in their areas,” said section officer (horticulture), Shahdara south, Jitender Saroha.

The EDMC also started a helpline number and mobile app through which residents could draw the corporation’s attention to any ailing tree in their area.

“We get about two calls on average every day. There have been days when we got four calls as well. People love greenery, anyone who knows the EDMC has now got two ambulances through TV or otherwise makes the call and we quickly reach the spot to respond to it,” said Saroha.

Mohit Vats, the nodal officer of the erstwhile SDMC, said the civic body would first identify the problems in their areas, before getting to work on correcting those.

“We didn’t have a dedicated helpline number for tree ambulances, just a control room, where we get all tree- and non-tree related calls. Our team surveyed areas across South Delhi to identify problems and fix them,” he added.

With the unification of Delhi’s three civic bodies, the reach of the service is now expected to spread further.

Meanwhile, the existing “tree ambulances will keep on working in the same zones where they were introduced”, said Vats.

“Only the name of the administration has been changed, everything else will be the same. The administration and finance would have been changed (with the unification), the fieldwork will continue as before,” he added.

ThePrint followed a few of the tree ambulances around Delhi, and observed how the trained professionals revived ailing greens.

Also read: Is Delhi being paranoid or realistic about the cutting of thousands of trees?

Heatwave and water issues

Although termites are the biggest problem affecting trees in East Delhi, civic officials have also been receiving calls and letters about trees drying up in the heat, said Saroha.

“Any (tree) species can be infected with diseases, but most ailments they get are due to dryness and lack of water. Many problems, like the infestation of white insects on trees, are because they are not getting enough water,” he added.

Saroha also spoke about the problem of water scarcity, which he cited as a frequent roadblock to revival efforts.

East Delhi residents are appreciative of the civic body’s efforts.

Mohan Aggarwal, a professor at Delhi University who describes himself as a nature-lover, said he makes frequent calls to the helpline to get trees in the park near his Mayur Vihar Phase I residence watered. Mayur Vihar is part of the Shahdara south zone.

“You can see the condition here. All the trees are dried up, that’s why I ask Saroha’s team to supply us with water tankers and revive them,” he added. “I have been pleasantly surprised as they have always responded to my calls quickly within 15-30 minutes.”

According to Vats, smaller shrubs are more severely impacted by heat waves, especially if they don’t get enough water. “You can see it in Lutyens’ Delhi (South Delhi areas designed and built by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens during the colonial era),” he said.

It’s not an easy task, spending hours under the summer sun, for those working to protect the vegetation.

But shrugging off his own discomfort, and that of others working with him, Pankaj said, “As a gardener, my work is to save trees. Only saving trees can reduce the high temperature. We work in this severe heat because if we save trees then they will bring moisture into the environment and people will benefit.”

Tree surgeries — how are they performed?

The most crucial work undertaken by the tree ambulances is ‘surgery’ to help trees recover from infestation by termites, or other pests, which results in the hollowing out of the bark from the inside.

“It takes about an hour or hour-and-a-half to perform one surgery,” said Pankaj. “It all depends on the tree’s height. Taller trees can take more time. Since the process is very intense, only two surgeries can be performed in a day.”

A tree surgery in progress | Photo: Sukriti Vats | ThePrint
A tree surgery in progress | Photo: Sukriti Vats | ThePrint

The process begins with cutting out branches that are deemed to be putting unnecessary weight on a tree.

The trunk, or the afflicted part, is then cleaned with a brush. Garbage accumulation, if any, around the tree is removed, as that could act as a breeding place for pests. The tree is then washed and pesticide applied, said Pankaj, demonstrating each step as he spoke.

Pieces of thermocol, he added, are then placed in the area that’s been hollowed out by termites and fixed in position with the help of chicken mesh. This is first covered by a layer of Plaster of Paris (POP), over which cement is added, to ensure that the POP doesn’t get washed away in rain.

“It takes three people to perform the surgery. One prepares the POP, the other cuts the chicken mesh, while another sprays the pesticide,” he added.

In addition to treating termite infestation, the SDMC tree ambulance staff also operate on trees to stop decaying from waterlogging or animal encroachment, said Vats.

In cases of insect infestations, the surgical team uses a burner to kill the insect, in addition to resorting to chemical treatments, he added.

Status after unification

Each of the three corporations had a separate horticulture department earlier, but the work is likely to be centralised in view of their reunification.

“As of 22 May, EDMC has officially ceased to exist. We will now be a part of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). I am not sure what my next designation will be. That will be decided in the next two-three days. But the expansion of this project (tree ambulance) throughout the city is eventual and even expected,” said Raghavendra Singh, earlier the director of the horticulture department in EDMC.

According to Singh, there will now be one commissioner for the 12 Delhi civic zones, with a deputy commissioner for each zone reporting to him.

Former NDMC horticulture director Ashish Priyadarshi termed the merger a “big step”, since all the assets will now “be equally divided among the 12 zones”. The official claimed he had been battling a fund crunch, which made it difficult for him to make tree ambulances operational in his area.

“There were not enough trucks and we didn’t have the technical know-how. We had written a letter to the council (New Delhi Municipal Council) seeking manpower for training. They made an estimate (of cost) and asked for an advance,” said Priyadarshi.

He added: “We could have begun with the project only once we got the money for it. But, now with the merger, we won’t have to seek outside help for training. There will be only one policy now governing all the 12 zones.”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Lutyens’ Delhi a jungle? Experts refuse to buy govt claim that forest cover grew by 2,261 sq km


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