Mumbai: The last time environmentalist Ramesh Madav conducted a tree census for the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, his team of botanists carried with it sheaves of forms to ink in individual details of the 1.9 million trees it counted in the city. Not only did the voluminous data have to be manually compiled, the geographical location of each tree was, at best, approximate and restricted to the street name. The hitch in this method was that a lack of accurate data made it difficult to track illegal tree felling.
Ambitious plans: Terracon CEO Ramesh Madav (right) uses the GPS device in a tree census. Kedar Bhat / Mint
So while the census could show there were, say, 50 gulmohar trees on Peddar Road, there was no way to map the specifics. “When there is (infrastructure) development in cities, someone gets permission to fell two trees and even if they chop a hundred, it can’t be tracked,” rues Madav, who founded Terracon Ecotech Pvt. Ltd four months ago to address the issue by providing precise and accurate data.
This time around, Terracon’s botanists will be out on the field with equipment that can determine the exact location of a tree using global positioning system, or GPS, a satellite-based technology typically used in vehicle navigation and location-based information search. Each unit, costing around Rs85,000, records the latitude and longitude of a tree, achieving an accuracy of within 5m. In addition, the botanists will record other details such as the height, canopy and condition of each tree in digital format, all of which will be transferred to a master information system that will plot the data on maps. This will make it easier to audit data and regulate illegal or irregular tree felling.
Terracon claims it is the first in the country to deploy such sophisticated tools to count trees. The company has signed a contract with Thane’s municipal corporation to conduct a tree census for the district over the next few months.
Talking about the importance of a tree census, Madav explains, “Creating an inventory (not only) helps track changes easily, it (also) helps people understand the trees in their city better and make them more environmentally conscious.” The last tree census in Mumbai, which took around a year and was completed in December, showed 336 species of trees in the city, including two rudraksha trees, which are considered sacred by Hindus. It also showed the woeful inadequacy of foliage in most parts of the city. Ideally, a place should have two trees for every three people, says the company. In the popular Colaba area, Terracon’s data show this ratio to be as low as one tree for every 21 persons.
Madav, who ran the Environment and Biotechnology Foundation, a non-governmental organization, prior to starting Terracon, is an evangelist of the census. In 2002, he discovered that the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, required all municipal corporations to conduct a tree census in their respective areas once every five years. He spent a lot of time pointing out the clause to local authorities across Maharashtra, and has conducted eight censuses in places such as Mumbai, Nashik and Kalyan. “In some cities, I have approached the commissioner who didn’t even know such a census had to be done,” he says.
The company is currently building a proprietary software platform called Vruksha Sharad to map and analyse the tree data more effectively. It also wants to increase its current team of 60 field officers, each a qualified botanist, to around 200.
Terracon expects to complete its first GPS-driven tree count in Thane before the monsoon begins this year, and is in talks with the municipal corporations of Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Chennai and Bangalore for similar projects. In the long term, however, Madav has far more ambitious plans for the tree census. “If we can cover the top 50 cities over the next 10 years or so, we can have a master plan for the whole country.”