Mumbai’s monsoons provide the city a brief window of lushness before it settles into its chalky, deciduous winter. But those looking forward to the annual greening have seen a more dramatic fallout this year. After a series of accidents in which falling tree branches seriously injured pedestrians and damaged property, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) fulfilled its pruning and trimming duties with unusual seriousness, going on an extensive and widely publicized tree-trimming drive across the city. The accidents haven’t stopped—earlier this month, a Kalina resident suffered massive spinal damage, thanks to a falling branch.

Mumbai’s green cover has certainly felt the effects, however. All over the city, from LBS Marg to Juhu, Lalbaug to Malad, the shorn tops of trees lining public spaces are beginning to suggest environmental catastrophes, not the rough-and-tumble of an above-average monsoon. Around 10,000 trees have been trimmed since June, according to Chandrashekhar Rokade, deputy municipal commissioner.

Mutilated: (clockwise from top left) Trees hacked to make way for the annual Ganesh festival hoardings in Lalbaug; palms transplanted by the BMC at the periphery of Oval Maidan; and the effects of tree-trimming along Link Road, Malad. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

“We say pruning and trimming," says environmental expert Nilesh Baxi, “but those are scientific terms. The correct term for the BMC’s operations is hacking." For the last three years, Baxi has been on the Tree Authority, a body of corporators and nominees constituted to protect and enhance urban greening, as mandated by the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975. He is yet to see any of the equipment or expertise that the BMC acknowledges it needs for tree trimming, put to use. “Just as an architect uses ultrasonic projections to detect flaws in the pillars and beams of a building he is about to renovate, you have technology to inspect a sick tree. The BMC’s stated goal is to inspect and trim trees four times a year, but they simply don’t have the equipment. I’m not even sure that the equipment you do see, like the BEST vehicles, is used within rules," says Baxi.

If administrative inefficiency is the prime actor in this drama, its roots go beyond the single issue of a resource crunch. For years now, people across Mumbai have protested the decimation of tree cover in their neighbourhoods. It’s particularly bad this year.

Tree transplantation, the BMC’s programme to maintain green cover in areas where foliage has to make way for development projects, is related to problems of falling branches. “Look at the stumps of palm trees at the Oval Maidan," Baxi says. “Those were transplanted from Marine Drive, but there is no new growth. They now pose a major hazard to sportspeople and walkers on the Maidan because they have not taken root properly." Baxi calculates that the BMC has transplanted around 28,000 trees so far—Baxi’s repeated requests for records of their growth and survival rate have remained unanswered over the last decade.

“Look, you shouldn’t be transplanting trees to Mumbai’s outskirts," says Ranjeet Walunj of The Sapling Project, which started giving out free saplings across Mumbai and other cities in January. Walunj, with fellow tree warrior Satish Vijaykumar, has done everything from riding a tempo across the length of the city and distributing saplings, to flagging down passers-by at Shivaji Park—the project’s point of origin—and gifting them saplings sourced from a nursery in Dadar. “We need these trees in the heart of the city. Future generations need explanations from us about the world around them," says Walunj.

The Sapling Project collects feedback every quarter. They consider 50% a poor rate of survival for saplings, but Walunj says they have reports of up to 80% survival in densely populated neighbourhoods in Borivali, Vile Parle, Bimbisar Nagar and Shivaji Park, thanks to local interest. “Their contractors don’t do a good job maintaining the trees which the BMC plants," Walunj says. “So we rope in citizens."

But citizens aren’t necessarily the good guys or silent bystanders in this affair. The BMC’s attitude to trees does not diminish the significance of the other major factor in this season’s tree disasters—public callousness. “Tree cover is supposed to be fantastic after the monsoons," says Vithal C. Nadkarni, journalist and long-time observer of the changes in Mumbai’s environment. “But it’s terrible this year because of the way extortionate and diabolical Ganesh mandals and their hoarding sponsors have hacked away at branches to make way for advertisements. Look around Lalbaug, Byculla and Kalachowki. It’s no wonder that recently planted trees look etiolated: They never have a chance to achieve growth and base girth that allows them to rejuvenate after trimming. It’s the great Indian cretinism. Trees aren’t here as an aesthetic privilege for the elite. They’re necessary for everyone’s survival."

Over a decade ago, the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) estimated that to absorb the human generation of carbon dioxide, a settlement would require 20 trees per person. In Mumbai, there are, conservatively, eight people to a tree. The Sapling Project gives out neem and Ashoka trees in Mumbai, which they say are both economically viable and good for the environment.

But these two species themselves represent a broader conflict within Mumbai’s biodiversity—the problem of non-indigenous species. In a city where questions of nativity and provenance bubble up among human residents now and again, perhaps it’s inevitable that Mumbai’s trees aren’t spared the debate over whether they really belong on island soil either.

A majority of this year’s tree-related accidents have occurred because of rotten or dead branches of the gulmohar, a ubiquitous tree that is nonetheless botanically exotic to Mumbai, and has a shallow root system that poses dangers in dense urban environments. The Ashoka, as the Asupalav (D) is somewhat inaccurately known, is another such species. Tall, narrow and elegant, it seems perfect to line crowded roads and small apartment complexes, but unlike neem, mango or coconut trees, it does not take easily to Mumbai’s natural conditions: a spoke in the wheel of biodiversity, inhospitable to fauna and unable to flourish in the same way as neem or mango trees. Yet it is Mumbai’s most common tree, making up 241,000 of the 1.9 million-odd tree population. In a city where trees have to contend with asphalt, tiling, encroaching buildings and a severely depleted groundwater table, among other things, the Ashoka’s continued survival is a testament to immigrant hardiness.

The tree-trimming drive has demonstrated one thing: In Mumbai’s continual, elemental struggle for resources, the decimation of green cover is simply a visible symptom of a community grotesquely eating its own limbs.