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A Personal Loss: How Death of Over 5,000 Trees Due to Amphan Cyclone Will Impact Kolkata

A man walks with his bicycle under an uprooted tree after Cyclone Amphan made its landfall in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal on Thursday. (Reuters)

A man walks with his bicycle under an uprooted tree after Cyclone Amphan made its landfall in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal on Thursday. (Reuters)

As the Amphan cyclone ravaged through West Bengal, it not only claimed several lives but also tore through the green cover of the greater Kolkata area.

“I feel like the Neem and the Mango tree in front of our house saved our building from the Amphan cyclone. The trees struggled for six to seven hours against the ferocious winds and when I went to sleep that stormy night, I could still hear them lashing against my window.” said Poulami Mukhopadhyay, a resident of Jadavpur, Kolkata.

Mukhopadhyay woke up the morning after the Amphan cyclone (21 May), and found those massive trees that she had known for almost two decades of her life, lying on the ground, broken and severed. “Nowadays, whenever I look out of my window, I am startled by their absence. I cannot believe those two trees were ripped from the ground. Last Thursday, like every Thursday of the year, my mother used the leaves from our mango tree for lokkhi pujo (Lakshmi Puja). This Thursday, the tree was on the ground, uprooted,” she added.

As the Amphan cyclone ravaged through West Bengal on 20th and 21st May, it not only claimed several lives (72 deaths have been reported so far) and damaged property, but also tore through the green cover of the greater Kolkata area. It toppled trees,amputated their big branches which fell on taxis and roads, blew away foliage with its ferocious winds, and left many trees with exposed roots and fallen crowns on the streets. Coconut trees were burnt to ashes by the lightning.

Even the grand old Banyan tree of the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden in Howrah, that has weathered several storms in its 342-year-old lifetime, did not come out unscathed. It's prop roots were mercilessly uprooted by Amphan, putting its status of being the world’s largest banyan tree in serious jeopardy. Apart from the Banyan tree, other inhabitants of the Botanical Garden suffered severely too. Media reports claim that out of 15,000 trees in that garden, more than 100 were overturned, and 1000 inquired. Trees fell in parks, college campuses, as well as people’s homes. One of the viral images of Amphan cyclone is that of BCCI President, Sourav Ganguly, trying to pull back the mango tree in his yard, that was uprooted during the storm.

KMC officials have already claimed that almost 5,000 trees have been uprooted in Kolkata alone. But, if we look at the Kolkata Metropolitan Area (which covers 72 municipalities, and 527 towns and villages) then a conservative estimate of affected trees would be somewhere around 10,000, claimed Environmentalist and Green Technologist, Somendra Mohan Ghosh.

“To compensate for the death of one mature tree, 10 new saplings have to be planted. So, to compensate for the deaths of so many matured trees during the Amphan cyclone almost a lakh of new saplings would be required, and even then, it wouldn’t be enough, because they won’t immediately absorb the same degree of pollution particles, give oxygen or take carbon dioxide as the matured trees used to, and will need considerable years to grow. Also, it will be a challenge to find open spaces in Kolkata to plant these saplings,” explained Ghosh.

While Ghosh and other environmentalists, as well as the government may be looking at ways to compensate for the deaths of those trees that were uprooted during the cyclone, for many Kolkata residents, it is a personal loss that cannot be compensated, and they are having a hard time coming to terms with the sudden event that caused so many green casualties.

Agniva Pal, a resident of Chuchura, Hooghly, who grew up in a house that overlooks ‘the behemoth trees’ inside Gorosthan, the Dutch Cemetery, is in a state of denial since the cyclone left his city, destroying several tall trees inside the cemetery.

“I have been asking my dad questions like, ‘Can't they use a huge crane to lift up the trees and give them some support? I am sure they will survive. They are massive and must have huge roots’. Yes, I am an adult but it still fails me how these magnanimous living things just fell.” said Pal.

Pal has a lot of memories of playing cricket in the mini forest inside Gorosthan, or at least the forest it was. As a kid he used to go inside it with his friends to just walk around. It was like a mini-nature-adventure park for him, he explained.

“My parents are passionate birdwatchers and they loved the fact that other than going to various sanctuaries to watch birds in their habitat, they could see birds at home all year round, due to the amazing tree canopy in Gorosthan. My mom was heartbroken after the cyclone. she welled up with tears after Amphan passed. She told me, ‘It's over. Birds will not come here anymore!’"

It isn’t just personal losses though, the deaths of so many trees during Amphan will also impact our communities. “Each area needs shade, if a region is full of sunlight, people cannot gather at street corners, in front of tea shops for their daily dose of adda, which is a very vibrant part of Kolkata’s para culture. People will not be able to sit out in the summers in many such paras because several trees have been uprooted in their areas.” explained Ghosh.

There will obviously be a grave impact on the pollution level, and the biodiversity of the city -- the lives of many birds, animals and insects. But, more importantly, it will strongly impact the city's green cover which was already thinning. According to an article in Times of India, the India State of Forest Report 2019 claims that the green cover in non-forest areas in West Bengal had declined by 6.1 percent from 2136 sq km in 2017 to 2006 sq km.

“It isn't just about replantation but the government should also spare some thoughts on what kind of plants they should sow, and how they should do it,” said Joint Secretary and Program Director of the NGO, Nature Environment & Wildlife Society, Ajanta Dey.

“When we know that these areas are prone to storms and more tropical cyclones are expected in the coming years, it should be kept in mind during replantation. The government should give urban trees spaces to grow. Currently, there is barely any radius next to the footpath that allows a tree to grow properly. There has been massive concretization, and the roads have been expanded to accommodate the ever growing traffic, but that has left very little space for roadside trees to grow in a healthy way. Things should not be left status quo and on policy makers alone, because para level, and booth level governance are also very essential,” she added.

“Buildings are often evaluated for structural stability by municipal corporations, and really old buildings are downgraded or declared dilapidated. But, no such evaluations are carried out for trees.” pointed out Environmentalist and Green Technologist, Somendra Mohan Ghosh.There are several trees across the city that are in precarious conditions and may not be able to withstand storms, even of lesser magnitude. Those trees have to be identified, and provided support and protection, so as to avoid such mass destruction during storms, added Ghosh.

“It is time for KMC to go for tree census, ward wise. There should be a tree census chain in every ward and they should send the report on a quarterly basis that would chronicle the condition of a tree's height, age, balance etcetera.” he said.

A big reason for many urban trees’ inability to balance themselves during the storm is human inconsideration, Dey claimed. “Whenever there are festivals in the city, people indiscriminately cut down the branches of several trees without paying attention to their structural integrity, that renders many plants lopsided. In order to survive, they branch out laterally, but that doesn’t give them stability. “ she added,

“So many plants have fallen because of Amphan, which has, in turn, caused problems in restoring water supply and reconnecting electricity because of which many people are saying that these trees are a nuisance. But, trees are not the nuisance, how they were allowed to grow by the humans is creating the nuisance,” pointed out Dey.

However, not everyone is responsible for the lack of care that urban trees live with. Some plants are nurtured with love for years, and their caretakers even tried to save them during this storm. A day before the storm, Dolon Dasbhaumik Basu, and her husband, both residents of Baguihati rearranged their terrace garden to ensure protection of their plants.

“My husband and I spent an entire day rearranging the pots and sacks so that they receive protection from the parapet and the water tank during the storm. But, despite our efforts our entire kitchen garden was devastated, a lemon tree in our backyard was also uprooted.” said Basu. Basu’s kitchen garden that was destroyed by the cyclone had fenugreek plants, potatoes bed, as well as okra, aubergine and bean plants. She and her husband have planted each of these trees themselves.

Basu, however, isn’t mourning. In fact, she said, “I still believed nature is merciful. Just as all the plants in the kitchen garden were destroyed, two new seedbeds of bottle gourds, bitter gourd and pumpkin suddenly sprung to life with new seedlings the day after the storm. It was so magical.”

Bose and her husband have replanted the lemon tree, and will continue to do their gardening. “The storm was scary, but we and a better part of our garden have weathered it. We will continue to grow new trees here,” she said.