The gold-green mustard fields of Punjab that are endlessly romanticised in Bollywood films hide a darker global tale of fast-shrinking forests that had to make way for highways, homes and cropland as the state grew richer riding on the Green Revolution.
GREEN WARRIORS: The Naroya Punjab Manch conducts afforestation drives and ensures that compensatory plantation mandated for development projects is legally enforced. The move to increase green cover helps improve the water table too
According to NITI Aayogdata, Punjab had the lowest forest cover among all states at3. 52% of its total land. In 2017, the percentage crept up more than 3. 6%, going by the tracking of the IRS Resource sat-2LISS III satellite. Of the total geographical area of50,362 sq km,forests occupy1,848. 63 sq km,or less than 4% of the land. The area under crops is close to 42 lakh hectares. However, it is more difficult today to hack down a tree in Punjab than ever before, thanks to NGOs such as Naroya (Healthy) Punjab Manch. Naroya has chosen the legal road to make Punjabgreener the right way. Set up in 2018, Naroya regularly organises tree plantation drives to increase forest cover that also aids the rejuvenation of the underground water table and checks air pollution. It has planted over 10,000 saplings through its members and distributed over 1 lakh saplings to schools and other organisations.
Its activism compelled firms involved in laying the NH-54 from Bathinda to Amritsar to plant 96,000 saplings because Naroya dragged the matter to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
If the axing of trees is necessary for a development project, such as the widening of roads, the group ensures that the compensatory plantation of trees is done according to rules and within the timeframe. The group has taken legal recourse to make many panchayats stop the axing of trees in villages.
“Faridkot district authorities allowed the cutting of 2,057 trees for Rs 67 lakh to commercially exploit a closed sugar mill spread over 137 acres. When we got to know about this in May 2021, our volunteers stopped the contractor from axing the trees and approached the NGT and the courts. We found that while constructing the Bathinda-Chandigarh and Bathinda-Amritsar national highways, lakhs of fully grown trees were axed and when it came to the compensatory plantation, a few saplings were planted. We are constantly battling the NHAI to complete the tree plantation as mandated,” Faridkot-based Gurpreet Chandbhaja, the convener of Naroya Punjab Manch, said.
The Manch, along with other non-governmental organisations, wants political parties to adopt a green agenda and give written assurances on saving the environment from further degradation by setting up a corpus for tree plantations.
The group also wants to take up the issue of contamination of water, spread awareness to stop further depletion of the water table, educate other organisations to grow more trees and reach out to political parties to support its green initiatives, Chandbhaja said.
There are other organisations too that are campaigning for greater tree cover in Punjab. “Forest cover needs to be increased rapidly and we are trying to turn it into a campaign by bringing in various stakeholders,” Bhai Kanhiya of the Cancer Roko Sewa Society said.
The society is among independent institutions such as Naroya Punjab Manch, Society for Ecological & Environmental Resources (SEER), Eco Sikhs, Punjab Environmental, Awareness Campaign and Kheti Virasat Mission that are working for a better environment for future generations of Punjab.