Citizens for trees

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 23, 2011 19:41 hrs

Angry at the way rapid urbanisation has changed their city, Bangaloreans have taken to street protests to protect its green cover.

If you were driving by Mekhri Circle in Bangalore on the rainy Saturday evening of August 20, you would have noticed a group of around 30 people huddled on a traffic island, holding banners and candles, and shouting slogans such as “Down, down BBMP” and “ Save trees, save our lives” in Kannada and in English.

Among them was Srividya V B, who was worried about the court putting a stay order on tree-felling. She is all of 15. Fifty-one year old Yashodha Reddy, a photographer and make-up artist, was there because her octogenarian father had sent her out to be part of the good cause. It takes him up to 40 minutes to cross a road in Bangalore today. Narayan Manepally, a 47-year-old entrepreneur, was protesting the “terrible planning and haphazard growth. They’ve ruined the city and cut down hundreds of trees.”

Over the last few years, Bangalore’s swift rise as the country’s IT capital has also meant a rapid loss of its cherished green cover to meet its growing infrastructure needs. But what has driven Bangalore’s green-minded denizens to anger now is the proposal to widen 216 roads.

Ever since the the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) announced its plans in May 2010, protests like the one above have become common across the city. While many citizens are worried about the probable loss of property and livelihood due to road widening, some have taken to the streets to express their frustration at what is being done to their beloved trees.

The two-day protest on Sankey Road, a well-loved boulevard, on June 30 and July 1, received national coverage. It had protestors lying down in front of trees, camping on them and courting arrest; but BBMP surreptitiously cut the trees in the wee hours of July 1. Says Shylaja Varma, one of the protestors, “Bangalore has reached a point where it is not our Bangalore anymore. Sometimes I even feel like leaving the city.”

Why are the city’s tree-lovers so upset? According to a study conducted by Environment Support Group (ESG), a city-based NGO, just the first phase of the widening project on 91 roads will lead to the loss of 30,000 trees. Activists estimate that around 4,000 trees have been cut in recent widening works around the city. The fate of more than a thousand trees depends on the outcome of various legal tussles. Says a distressed Reddy, “How will my grandchildren deal with all this?”

The citizens of Bangalore share a deep emotional bond with their trees. Various rulers and administrators are credited with greening the Garden City. Hyder Ali, who ruled Mysore (of which Bangalore was a part) in the late 1700s, gave the city one of its most famous gardens, Lalbagh. Another green lung, Cubbon Park, was laid out by the British in the late 19th century. Bangalore’s trademark green avenues — including those lined with sequentially flowering trees which burst into colour at different times of the year — are said to be conceived by German horticulturist Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel who was invited to the city in 1908 by Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV.

The tradition of nurturing urban greenery continued over the years, and trees became a part of the city’s heritage. For many like Varma and Reddy, the erosion of the city’s green cover is about the passing of an era. As Bangalore struggles to become a modern metropolis, the city’s fast disappearing green avenues represent the passing of a way of life, of a gracious and calm pace of life. Many Bangaloreans, however, disagree and feel that this is a small price to pay for a new and better city. Notes Varma, “I’ve lost many of my friends. They think I’m stupid to fight all this.”

But it is not just about pretty, shaded avenues. Trees have a greater role to play in the city. “Our studies have found that in many of the main roads in Bangalore, suspended particulate matter levels are much higher than permissible. But these decrease to within safe limits just by having tree cover on the roads. Tree cover on roads also reduces midday temperatures by as much as 3-5 degrees Celsius, and that of road surfaces by as much as 25 degrees Celsius,” points out Harini Nagendra, urban ecology coordinator at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a Bangalore-based NGO, and Asia research coordinator, Centre for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change, Indiana University. “This is very important,” Nagendra continues, “as urban heat islands add to people’s discomfort. Hot areas also reduce the likelihood of people cycling, walking or using open buses — which creates greater problems of sustainability.”

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Bangaloreans have always valued the trees in their city. Two decades ago, a young Gururaja Budhya and two of his friends barged in on a tree-planting ceremony in the city and handed over a letter to then Karnataka Governor Khurshid Alam Khan, protesting against the cutting down of trees lining Sampige Road in Malleswaram in north Bangalore. Budhya and his friends spent a few hours in the nearby police station, but the trees were saved.

Budhya, who now runs an urban affairs research firm in the city, also recounts a protest march in 1991 to save a wooded avenue in south Bangalore. But it failed to block a road-widening project there. Seven years later, thousands of Bangaloreans participated in the Save Cubbon Park Campaign initiated by ESG, and succeeded in getting a stay from the High Court on a government order de-notifying areas of the park for building activities.

Tree-loving Bangaloreans are also seeking other ways of protecting the city’s greenery. Smitha Cariappa, who has spent most of her forty-odd years in the city, admires fellow citizens who participate in group protests but says she prefers to do something on her own. Cariappa worked with BBMP’s Tree Officer in her area to save two trees from being cut, even taking on her neighbours for one of them. “We are always complaining about the system,” says Cariappa. “But if we draw the attention of the right authorities, something will be done.”

Vijay Nishanth, an intern at ATREE, has worked on Bangalore trees for nearly a decade as a BBMP volunteer, and is now attempting a tree census using GPS technology. BBMP is also looking at the complex and expensive option of transplanting trees which will otherwise be axed. Citizens and corporations in the city regularly have tree-planting drives, and the civic body also has planting initiatives. Says BBMP Deputy Mayor S Harish, “We are planting saplings. They have a good survival rate. People say they do not want tree-felling. But they also complain about the traffic. IT and other multinatonal firms are moving out of the city because of this. We need to widen roads — but with minimum cutting of trees.”

But concerns remain. Nagendra commends planting drives but cautions that “some of the trees that have been and are being felled on several major roads are the oldest and largest in the city. The ecological and environmental services they provide cannot be replaced by one, two or even 10 saplings for decades to come.” According to Nagendra, the cutting down of trees lining streets also affects urban fauna.

Citizens and BBMP are attempting to deal with road congestion through solutions such as car pool and cycling. After the tree-felling on Sankey Road, 71 academicians from the city, including ecologists like Nagendra and experts in public policy and urban and traffic planning, submitted a public statement to BBMP pointing to studies worldwide that show that road widening only serves to bring more traffic on to the streets. The statement goes on to suggest that “demand side” measures such as congestion tax and tighter parking regulations may work better in getting private vehicles off the road.

Over the last few years, the government has improved the city’s bus network. After many delays, the metro rail project, which too had many run-ins with the city’s green brigade, is finally set to launch soon.

“Though I’m part of this struggle,” says Varma, “I can’t get over a feeling of helplessness.” But experts assert that citizens and the local government must continue to engage with each other. Says Ashwin Mahesh, who teaches at the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and is an advisor to the Karnataka government on urban affairs, “Citizens should mobilise support for candidates based on what they need them to do, especially in civic elections. There are no technical or managerial solutions for problems that are inherently political.”

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