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Aiming for 50 Lakh Saplings this year, but where is the space?

Agra: Agra district has embarked on a massive tree plantation drive, targeting planting over 55 lakh saplings by July end.

“Each year the target goes higher. Last year it was around 40 lakh, and in 2018, it was 20 lakh. If only all these saplings had survived, Agra would be a vast forest or a network of dense green stretches,” lamented Dr Mukul Pandya, a biodiversity conservationist.

The Agra district forest department reported that Mayor Hemlata Diwakar Kushwaha, her family members, and key officials like Adarsh Kumar, IFS, Divisional Director, Social Forestry Division, Agra, and Disha Singh, Regional Forest Officer, joined city forest workers and residents to celebrate Van Mahotsav week from July 1 to 7. The theme “Ek Ped Maa Ke Naam” and the Plant Trees Save Trees campaign saw the planting of Peepal, Jamun, Belpatra, Mulberry, and Drumstick plants.

Additionally, Van Mahotsav was celebrated at Yamuna Nursery under the Bah Range of the Agra Forest Division. Chief Guest Farera Gram Pradhan Rambir, Trainee IFS Abhinay Raj, Regional Forest Officer Amit Kumar, forest workers, and locals planted Jamun and Bakayan saplings. Harishankari (Peepal, Pakkad, Banyan) saplings were planted at the Bhole Baba temple premises in Chhalesar Gram Panchayat under the Etmadpur range, with tree guards installed for protection.

Van Mahotsav programmes in the Pinahat and Kiravali ranges aimed to raise public awareness about plantation and protection, distributing saplings to the community. Deputy Director Horticulture Dr Dharmpal Yadav said his department would be distributing 2.40 lakh saplings, free of cost.

Each July-August, the state forest department sets new targets for sapling plantations in the eco-sensitive Taj Trapezium Zone. However, officials rarely conduct a review or audit of past efforts. Despite planting millions of saplings annually, ecological conditions continue to deteriorate.

This year’s state target exceeds five crores, prompting questions about available space and arrangements to ensure sapling survival. Environmentalist Dr Devashish Bhattacharya criticizes the lack of support mechanisms for sapling care, leading to "paper trees" in official files.

During Akhilesh Yadav's tenure as chief minister, his government set a Guinness world record by planting millions of saplings in a single day. Not to be outdone, the Yogi Adityanath government in 2018-19 targeted planting nine million saplings, focusing on medicinal plants. However, reliable data on survival rates and fund utilization is scarce.

Despite spending thousands of crores on tree plantation drives, Uttar Pradesh's green cover remains dismal, compared to the national objective of 33 per cent. Green activists like Padmini Iyer highlight the declining green landscape due to construction activities. In Mathura, the green cover is as low as two per cent, while in Agra, it is below nine per cent.

Agra's green activists like senior advocate KC Jain suggest extending the sapling planting period to two months and focusing on diverse species suited to the semi-arid region. They also call for an independent audit of the greening efforts to date.

This year, the Yogi Adityanath government in UP has set ambitious targets for all government departments, supported by numerous voluntary agencies. However, skeptics question the availability of space and care for the saplings. Despite planting crores of saplings annually, survival rates remain poor, turning these efforts into "paper trees" in government files.

Experts argue that for 90 million saplings, 225,000 hectares of land is needed, with a five-meter gap between each sapling. Given the previous plantation efforts, space is becoming a significant concern.