Healing, One Tree At A Time

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Maya Vengurlekar

The world, including India, has entered the final lap towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) by 2030. But this Decade for Action has lost its initial thrust as governments and industries have been forced to realign priorities and actions, a shift wrought by a raging global COVID-19 pandemic. Or so it seems. But the pandemic has also sharpened lessons in resilience like never before. It has taught us not to take this life and its elements for granted – something as basic as the air we breathe. 

Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate said, “What a friend we have in a tree. The tree is the symbol of hope, self-improvement and what people can do for themselves.”

There is no bigger symbol of hope, resilience and renewal than Mother Nature herself.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this decade is critical to saving the planet from the worst effects of climate change. According to NITI Aayog’s SDG India Index 2.0[1], the country’s progress on SDGs is crucial for the world as we are home to about one-sixth of the global population. Hence, it is high time to get our act together.

Schedule VII of Section 135[2], Companies Act, 1956 refers to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rules that focus on ensuring environmental sustainability, conservation of natural resources and maintaining the quality of soil, air and water. It mandates a role for Indian corporates in environment conservation by promoting a continued engagement with nature.

Since 2015, CRISIL Foundation, the CSR arm of the company, has shown robust commitment to tackle two key environmental challenges:

  1. Environmental concerns due to deforestation and rapid urban growth
  2. Marine pollution due to plastic and non-biodegradable waste 

CRISIL Re is a key initiative to channelise the energy of CRISILites towards the company’s environmental conservation efforts.

So far, we have planted over 80,000+ trees and 160+ native species of trees across Mumbai, Pune, Gurgaon, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Bengaluru. These trees are expected to offset 1.6 million kg of carbon dioxide every year once they are fully matured. Over 10,000 trees were geo-tagged in 2018, with plans to geo-tag another 40,000 by 2021-end (depending on the pandemic situation).

Long-term visible change through CRISIL’s interventions in Bhiwandi, Mumbai

As the adage goes, Rome was not built in a day. Despite limited resources, our focus on long-term impact and sustainability is yielding dividends as the initiative grew organically over five years. We hope to provide insights to the corporate world on devising and implementing an effective afforestation strategy.

CRISIL re, a unique environment conservation initiative 

Launched on February 16, 2015, CRISIL Re is a flagship initiative of the CRISIL Foundation to conserve the environment by actively supporting tree planting and beach cleaning drives.

The brand identity, Re, is a prefix. Each CRISILite is empowered to focus on the aspect they want to change – Re-build, Re-imagine, Re-create, Re-construct, Re-charge, and so on. As the CRISIL Re manifesto puts it, “Change what you don’t like.” 

CRISIL Re collaborates with NGOs on various environmental initiatives in cities where our offices are located, viz., Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Delhi, Gurugram, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

Mumbai’s first urban forest developed in six months through the ‘Miyawaki’ approach of native plantations. CRISIL Re supported Green Yatra (the NGO partner) and this initiative by planting 2000 trees. 

How it all started

CRISIL Re initially focused mainly on the greening of ecosystems and urban pockets around the cities where our offices were located. The idea was to promote urban afforestation – in parks, main roads and office spaces. However, there were numerous administrative hassles – especially getting permissions and approvals from local municipal corporations, forest department, etc.

Our initiatives have now expanded to the greening of the hills in Pune – Hanuman Tedki and Chatushringi Hills, and arid lands such as the Tetvali area of Rabale. The greening process also led to a partnership with the Indian Army within the Aundh area of Pune and around the Lakeside in Khadakwasla reservoir.

Subsequently, we decided to focus on immediate city limits. The initiative started at a small plantation site in Bhiwandi, Mumbai, with a scope to plant 6,000 trees. Since the site was close to our Mumbai office, our employees were able to participate in the drive. We then moved from Mumbai to Gurgaon, where we identified a stretch of land, which is now the most popular site for its ecological restoration – the Aravali Biodiversity Park.

Our initiatives have now expanded to the greening of the hills in Pune – Hanuman Tedki and Chatushringi Hills, and arid lands such as the Tetvali area of Rabale. The greening process also led to a partnership with the Indian Army within the Aundh area of Pune and around the Lakeside in Khadakwasla reservoir.

Return of the natives

By 2018, we were convinced that planting both native and fruit-bearing trees[1], along with trees that provide timber (to promote forest-based livelihood activities for the local communities), was the way to go. Our geo-tagging exercise undertaken in the same year attested to the fact that we stuck to this focus.

The right selection of native forest species has helped revive local forest vegetation – these sites are now teeming with biodiversity. Proper handling of trees, soil management, assessing planting hole depth, and making arrangements for ensuring tree firmness, have all led to this success.

As native trees not only provide environmental benefits but also preserve and promote flora and fauna in the catchment areas, we made them central to our afforestation agenda from that point on. Moreover, the survival rate of our tree plantations across cities and semi-urban locations was found to be 85-90 per cent. This not only reaffirmed and validated the importance of planting native species, but also that of site-specific maintenance and post-plantation initiatives.

In 2019, we adopted ‘Miyawaki’ – a Japanese method of afforestation to create urban forests using native varieties. We are helping to develop dense native urban forests in the next 10-20 years in Mumbai and Pune.

Survival of the fittest Post-plantation efforts

Post-plantation monitoring and oversight are key to track the sustenance, survival of the trees and ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiative.

Initially, we started with a three-year maintenance exercise. However, we learned that native species do not need focused maintenance of more than a year due to their ruggedness. Hence, we recommend an ideal maintenance period of one to three years depending on the species, location, and nature of natural resources such as soil, water, etc.

Maintenance activities should include setting up irrigation lines to enable water supply, constant watering of planted saplings, digging of the soil for mulching to lock in moisture, replanting to compensate for dead saplings (if any), as well as cutting grass and digging trenches to prevent forest fires.

Our employees are involved in post-plantation activities such as tree maintenance, mulching, and de-weeding on a regular basis to ensure steady growth. As our focus on tree plantation intensified, we have adopted a pragmatic approach towards the maintenance and upkeep of all plantation sites.

Thus, our afforestation agenda, closely tied to the UN SDG 15 (Improving Life on Land), is being implemented on a large scale across multiple sites and cites.

Geo-tagging – Monitoring survival and diversity

A tree audit through a third party is crucial to understand how afforestation techniques are aligned with the company’s sustainability goals and global priorities.

We initiated the tree geo-tagging exercise in 2018 to monitor the mortality rate, species and yields of trees across locations. This comprehensive exercise in collaboration with a national-level think-tank based out of Mumbai audited over 18,000 trees planted since 2015 across India.

The exercise revealed that we had adhered to its return to the natives’ approach: we had planted 76 per cent native and 24 per cent non-native species.

As native trees not only provide environmental benefits but also preserve and promote flora and fauna in the catchment areas, we made them central to our afforestation agenda from that point on. Moreover, the survival rate of our tree plantations across cities and semi-urban locations was found to be 85-90 per cent. This not only reaffirmed and validated the importance of planting native species, but also that of site-specific maintenance and post-plantation initiatives.

Achieving economies of scale – Effective management is key

It is crucial that the economics of these efforts work in the long run. For this, it is essential to bring down the unit cost of each sapling through a detailed analysis of the cost structure, identification of right plantation sites and selection of the right partners.

We launch all our environment conservation initiatives in collaboration with partner NGOs led by individuals who are highly passionate about the cause in each city. This also enabled us to select the right locations to target the maximum impact.

For tree plantation initiatives, we offer grants to partner NGOs to cover costs of pre-plantation, plantation and post-plantation activities. Regular due diligence and tracking of these funded initiatives enable us to monitor plant growth, mortality and maintenance. A maintenance management system is also essential to make NGO partners accountable for sustaining plantation sites over a longer period.

Through concerted efforts over 2019 and 2020, we have lowered the unit costs of plantations by 50 per cent, thereby doubling the plantation count over a one-year period.

With the growing relevance of the environment, social and governance agenda and imminent threats such as global warming and pollution, focused interventions to preserve nature and biodiversity and a robust commitment to create green, carbon-neutral economies are the need of the hour.

Driving social consciousness among employees

We strive to build a strong environmental conservation agenda by involving employees in various activities associated with tree plantation. All our conservation efforts are designed near our premises so that our employees can be directly involved in driving the intended objectives.

This conscious choice, of not outsourcing environment conservation, but involving our own employees and making it easier for them to participate, has not just been uplifting at the individual level but helped drive a larger culture of social responsibility and consciousness within our company.

Miles to go before we sleep – Exploring the water world

Over the past six years, our data-driven and analytical approach has enabled us to monitor, track and measure the outcomes of our environmental conservation efforts. As we continue to focus on urban afforestation and planting of native trees, we are setting our sights on improving life below water (UN SDG 14) over the next few years.

With the growing relevance of the environment, social and governance agenda, and imminent threats such as global warming and pollution, focused interventions to preserve nature and biodiversity and a robust commitment to creating green, carbon-neutral economies are the need of the hour.

An inherent focus on people and the planet, along with profits, will be the key tenet to build a sustainable India and a resilient global economy.

Maya Vengurlekar is the Chief Operating Officer of CRISIL Foundation, the CSR arm of CRISIL Ltd.

[1]https://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/SDG-India-Index-2.0_27-Dec.pdf
[2]http://ebook.mca.gov.in/Actpagedisplay.aspx?PAGENAME=17923