Seeds of doubt over CRRT’s plantation drive

This is important because in 2010, a private media organisation had donated 300 saplings to be planted along Cooum.

Published: 16th March 2021 06:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th March 2021 08:21 AM   |  A+A-

Mega plantation drive along the banks of Cooum | R Satish Babu

Mega plantation drive along the banks of Cooum | R Satish Babu

Express News Service

CHENNAI: The mega plantation project taken up along the banks of Cooum, at a cost of Rs 36.61 crore by the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT), promises to beautify the city. But, its implementation has given rise to several concerns, including losses to the already-stressed exchequer. The project aims to plant 4.53 lakh saplings along the Cooum for a distance of 60km, from the river’s mouth to Paruthipattu.

First concern was the timing of the project, which began in February. When Express visited the site of plantation, at Swami Sivananda Salai, many of the saplings had begun to go dry. Biodiversity scientist S Aroumougame told Express that the ideal time for mass plantation would be September — as the roots would get enough time to acclimatise before monsoon — and not ahead of summer.  

When asked about this, the person listed as the “team lead” for plantation in Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust’s official documents, said it has been planned to stop plantation until June-July, since some saplings were drying up, and water will be scarce in the summer months. “We will concentrate on watering and nourishing the saplings that have already been planted until now and make sure they thrive,” he said.

A CRRT report dated March 1 notes that 20,424 saplings have already been planted. Interestingly, the authorities have proceeded with the plantation drive even without taking into account as to how many of the 108 sewage outlets into the river have been plugged, thereby giving the saplings a better chance at survival. This is important because in 2010, a private media organisation had donated 300 saplings to be planted along Cooum. When followed up, it was found that only 10 of those trees have survived till date.       

Money plant

Second concern. The tender documents have not categorised sapling cost, labour cost, and contingency and supervision cost. It has been learnt that the sapling itself is estimated to cost Rs 740. Together with contingency, supervision, and labour, the cost per sapling goes up to Rs 808. When Express cross-checked the prices of the species listed by CRRT with local nurseries, most them were found to be priced between Rs 250 and Rs 400. Some, like Aegle Marmelos and Ficus Racemosa, cost only between Rs 150 and Rs 200.  

The nursery owners said the prices would be reduced by almost half if the purchase is done in bulk quantities. When asked about the price difference, the team lead for plantation at CRRT said the prices were arrived considering the “mortality” of the saplings. “If a sapling dries up, we have to replace it with a new one for which we cannot bill separately. So, this price has to include that too. The price of shrubs are lower than trees so we have to adjust for the price of the shrubs in the trees,” he said.    

When Express contacted a retired principal chief conservator of forests, he said that the standard practice was to factor in a maximum of 10% mortality rate of saplings to the estimated cost. In this case, if a 10% mortality is calculated at the average price of Rs 300, it would amount to only Rs 1.35 crore in total. A member of an NGO that has undertaken several such projects for government departments, told Express that in many cases the supplier himself takes into consideration the mortality and supplies additional saplings at no extra cost. 

“Recently, we purchased 400 saplings, and the supplier gave 40 extra for free. In case of bulk orders, such as the CRRT one, the supplier would account for the mortality too,” added the NGO worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. The tender, which was floated in January, was awarded to an Erode-based concern called RPP Infra Projects Limited. 

The tender, that was floated in January, was awarded to a private concern, Erode-based RPP Infra Projects Limited when government departments like the Forest Department may have been able to procure the saplings at a more reasonable price. 

Furthermore, with some of the trees expected to take around 5-10 years to grow, there is no contingency plan for the Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Elevated Expressway, which is set to extend along the banks of the Cooum until Koyambedu. 

According to the original GO, when the administrative sanction of `604.77 crore for the eco-restoration of the Cooum river was accorded, the proposal included more than 9.6 km of maintenance ways, 24 km of walkways, 19 km of cycle tracks and more than 6,63,788 sq m in 24 parks. However, the original proposal of walkways and parks had been replaced with 100% vegetation that is being undertaken currently, but it is not clear if a revised G.O was passed.    

While the cost for this particular project may be Rs 36.6 crore, the CRRT has several other mass vegetation projects lined up - in the Ennore creek at an estimated cost of Rs 48.39 crore, an urban waterfront development plan along Buckingham canal at Rs 214.95 crore and the Adyar drains at an estimated cost of  Rs 197. 75 crore. 

Lastly, the project has excluded the community and any form of NGO cooperation, unlike for instance, the Chennai Corporation's Miyawaki project that encourages participation of various corporates, residents associations, NGOs and other government players. 

When Express met a senior official of the CRRT at his office, the official said that it was not the ‘right time’ to write about the project and he would require permission from the member secretary of the CRRT in order to answer the reporter’s questions. 


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