Bengaluru: An old, deeply fissured mango tree stands in the middle of one lane of Jayamahal Road in the northeast of the city. Its wide canopy shades both lanes of the road and the trunk is grey from the smoke of vehicles that pass on both its sides. Number 47 is painted on its trunk.
At the mouth of the road, at the busy Mekhri Circle, a tea-shop caters to a crowd beneath a sprawling peepul tree. It has witnessed the transformation of that intersection over maybe 40 years. It is numbered 890. These trees are marked to be cut down by the municipal corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), even as the state scraps its heavily disputed steel flyover proposal.
In a victory for citizens and environment groups, the minister for Bengaluru development, K.J. George, announced on March 2 that the steel flyover – intended to ease traffic onto Bellary road and towards the airport – would finally be abandoned. According to the government’s own estimate, 812 trees needed to be cut down to build the flyover. (An independent report from the Azim Premji University estimated that 2,244 trees would in fact be cut down.) Many of these trees will be spared – but not all are out of the woods yet.
Along Jayamahal Road, the BBMP has marked 245 trees to be cut down for a road-widening project. In the first phase, the BBMP aims to bring down 112 trees. It has purchased land from the adjoining Palace Grounds; near one junction, the compound wall has already been demolished. These 112 trees fall where a ramp connecting the steel flyover was to meant land.
Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB), the organisers of a protest against the project, called the road-widening a sly strategy to strengthen the case for the flyover. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had stayed the flyover project due to its likely costs to the environment. With no trees left where the ramp lands, the BBMP could have shown reduced costs for the flyover – leaving the NGT with less reason to extend the stay order.
With the flyover scrapped, will those trees stand? N. Shantakumar, the assistant conservator of forests (ACF), BBMP, is preparing a report on the need to go ahead with the widening. He will present it to the commissioner of the BBMP, who “will take a call on going ahead or dropping the project.” The ACF also intends to call citizens, activists and the press for a discussion on the project next week.
Shantakumar defends the plan, saying, “Only 52 trees in the compound of the Palace Grounds, and 60 on the sides of the road, need to be cut down to ease traffic congestion.”
Some of these trees shouldn’t be standing on the median at all, Shantakumar says, as they grow lateral roots and expansive canopies, creating a risk of branches falling onto passing commuters. Such trees belong in parks or forests, not on city roads or by private homes. He adds that most of these 112 trees are not native to the city, are ageing or are on the verge of death.
To Harini Nagendra, professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University and lead author of the report, this is “a typical forester’s view of timber: how do we know trees can’t survive for a hundred-plus years in the city?” She points out that officials had made similar arguments in 2007, relating to a metro-rail project on Nanda Road in Jayanagar. Many of those trees still stand, ten years later.
Besides, on a normal day the traffic flows freely on Jayamahal Road, except at a few intersections. This is despite the trees on the median, which survived a previous road-widening in 2010. According to Tara Krishnaswamy, the convener of CfB who marshalled the rally on February 11, “Road-widening is a poor way to help traffic management. It only pushes the bottleneck further down the track.” What improves traffic, she says, is ‘uniform carriage way’, where traffic moves smoothly as the width of the road is consistent.
The BBMP promises to transplant some trees inside the Palace Grounds. The ACF wants to profile trees by their age, survival rates and so on, to determine whether they can be transplanted and to build an environmental model of road-widening that can be used across Bengaluru. In addition, he wants to identify “the tallest and the most exotic trees required in Bangalore and make [Jayamahal Road] a beautiful, wonderful road to be remembered in the future”.
To help with transplantation, the BBMP approached the city’s Institute of Wood Science and Technology. Surendra Kumar, the institute director, said the global success rate for tree transplantation is 50-70%. Factors like soil conditions, height, vulnerability to insects and even wind conditions at the new location need to be considered. But the corporation was “not specific about how many trees, on which stretch of the road or what kind of transplantation they meant to carry out.” He returned their request, asking for a more concrete plan.
According to Leo Saldanha, whose Environment Support Group regularly flags the legal violations of development projects, if property has been demolished “it is illegal as the road hasn’t been procured under the Town and Country Planning Act.” Under the TCPA, public comments are encouraged in favour of or against a road-widening project, following which it is made a scheme. The project also needs to justify how it will reduce traffic congestion. The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act also mandates a public hearing if more than 50 trees are to be felled. Only then can authorities acquire land and bring down trees.
Saldanha points to a binding order of now-Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar (who in 2010 was the Chief Justice of the Karnataka high court), where he ruled “any official violating the TCPA for promoting any infrastructure project will be personally held accountable for violating the law and contempt of court.”
Yet the survival of scores of trees, on Jayamahal Road and elsewhere, hang in the balance. Citizens of Bengaluru will have to brace themselves for more protests to save its green cover.
Vrushal Pendharkar is a writer at IndiaBioScience.