New Delhi: As concerns mount over the fast degrading quality of air and land due to unabated felling of trees, rapid urbanisation and vehicular pollution among other reasons, a renewed effort is being made through public-private partnerships to increase the country’s green cover, especially in urban spaces.

At 68 million hectares, India has the world’s 10th highest forest cover but experts say the country is fast losing its trees, with hardly 3-4% of its geographical area under good forests. Ajay Kumar Saxena, consultant (forestry) at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), notes that the country is losing forests to encroachments, industrial development, illegal felling, etc.

“Possible implications are severe, such as accelerated climate change, impact on local livelihoods, loss of biodiversity and rising national import bill for wood and wood products," he cautions. It is in this scenario that some businesses are undertaking tree plantation drives under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to increase tree cover and reverse the effects of deforestation.

Apurva Bhandari, founder of Sankalp Taru, a social enterprise that manages and implements tree plantation activities for corporate entities, says even those entities that do not have a significant carbon footprint from their operations are looking to plant trees. In fiscal year 2016-17, Sankalp Taru planted over 200,000 trees across various states on behalf of Reckitt Benckiser, Kotak Mahindra Bank and Tata Power. During FY216, it planted over 145,000 saplings for Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, State Bank of India, General Insurance Corporation, and Kotak Life Insurance. In the two financial years, the social enterprise carried out plantation projects worth about Rs1 crore. The organization, Bhandari says, not only assists firms with tree plantation, it helps with maintenance as well.

Another social enterprise, Grow-Trees.com has partnered with a number of companies including SBI Life Insurance, Vodafone India, and Tata Capital for their CSR efforts, to plant over 2.5 million trees in the last seven years.

In 2016-17, it planted around 600,000 trees across eight states. Its project, “Trees For Wildlife Corridor", between Kanha and Pench in Madhya Pradesh has been supported by Vodafone India for the last three years, and aims to facilitate movement of tigers between the forests and help raise their genetic diversity.

“The orans, or sacred groves, that Grow-Trees has helped recreate in Rajasthan are already providing local communities with non-timber resources, and have seen the return in greater abundance of wildlife such as peacocks and parakeets," says Bikrant Tiwary, chief executive officer at Grow-Trees.com. The organization’s latest project is “Trees for Rivers" in Madhya Pradesh on the banks the Narmada, where it is planting trees such as teak and bamboo, and is supported by SBI Life Insurance as part of its CSR activity. In FY17, the company spent Rs91.28 lakh on tree plantation and their maintenance including the project with Grow-Tree.

HCL Foundation has partnered with the NGO “Give Me Trees", the Noida administration and the Uttar Pradesh forest department to plant over 10,000 trees by the end of FY18. The foundation, which is the CSR wing of HCL Technologies, has so far planted over 30,000 saplings across its project locations in Noida, Chennai, Bengaluru, Madurai, Lucknow and Hyderabad.

Nidhi Pundir, director, CSR at HCL Foundation, says such initiatives help in striking the right balance in the ecosystem by conserving nature and natural resources and increasing green cover. “Crucial environmental issues such as global warming and climate change are a reality staring us in the face. Whether directly or indirectly, these issues affect us all."

Given the scale of the task, many believe that environmental issues cannot be resolved without the participation of diverse stakeholders.

Anshul Bhargava, chief people officer at PNB Housing Finance Ltd, says there is need for holistic CSR strategies that lead to a positive impact on social and environmental systems. “Such issues are beyond the capabilities of any single private sector or public sector entity. What we require is a broader ecosystem of collaboration to achieve long-term shared success," he says.

Even as companies are becoming more cognizant of environmental concerns, there is also a feeling that when it comes to addressing them, the response from businesses has been slow. Jaivir Singh, vice chairman at PwC India Foundation, emphasises that environment-related initiatives need to feature on top of the CSR priorities of companies, which isn’t the case at present. “Far more needs to be done to identify priorities and subsequently get the right consortium to address them," he says.

A similar view is voiced by Tiwary of Grow-Tree.com, who says even firms supporting the environment under CSR initiatives allocate minuscule amounts to tree plantation drives. Bhandari of Sankalp Taru adds that for some entities tree plantation is treated like an occasion-based campaign.

Though tree plantation programmes may not have had a large-scale impact so far, Saxena of CSE believes that the potential is huge and such initiatives should be promoted regardless of scale, and it is crucial for civil society and firms to stay engaged.

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