Before the axe falls again...

Road infrastructure projects have claimed thousands of trees in the city. With no letup in vehicle numbers, the demand for more flyovers and wider roads has only increased. More trees are obviously under the chopping block. Is there a way out?

Does Bangalore deserve a hyper boost of its inadequate civic infrastructure at the cost of its once-famed greenery? Will greying the greens herald in an ecosystem that pampers the motorist but jeopardizes everyone’s health?

The debate is perennial, and doesn’t seem to end in a hurry. As trees continue to be felled, making way for wider roads, bigger flyovers and larger metro pillars, the Green Brigade feels silenced. Pandering to the demands of 50 lakh vehicles in a city of one crore Bangaloreans, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) finds no reason to stop planning more roads and grade-separators.

Environmentalists and urban planning experts are convinced that wider roads would only bring in more vehicles, and trigger further demands on road width. Implication: More trees to be felled. So, here’s the disturbing road ahead: The sky-rocketing vehicular registrations at the city’s 13 Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) will saturate in no time the capacity of every road infrastructure project planned in the foreseeable future!

The Namma Metro project has already axed hundreds of trees across the City. The celebrated green canopy in Jayanagar is now history. With the launch of work on the 72.1 km second phase, thousands of trees are bound to be felled over the next five years.

There would be no letup in the tree-fellings once BBMP starts work on the proposed elevated road projects and signal-free corridors. The numerous road-widening projects in the pipeline will require acquisition of property, and with it the roadside trees.

Four hundred fully grown, decades-old trees were axed for the Suranjan Das road-widening work. But six years later, the road work is nowhere near completion. All that remains of the once green road are the wood debris strewn haphazardly.552 trees to go

More trees are on the chopping block. In January, BBMP’s Assistant Conservator of Forests had issued a public notice calling for comments and objections to a plan to fell 552 trees in various parts of the city. 

The Environment Support Group (ESG) has now filed objections, contending that the proposal to widen the roads is not in strict compliance with the provisions of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961. BBMP, the Group submitted, cannot fell the trees until it justified the need for the road-widening as per the conditions set by the legislation. 

Besides, the proposal to remove 552 trees is in gross variance to the undertaking given by the State to the High Court that the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976 has to be amended providing for a legally tenable Appellate Authority. Currently, there is no authority in law which could approve the proposed mass felling of trees. ESG maintained that the BBMP Tree Officer does not have the necessary authority to sanction the tree-cutting, and going ahead would invite contempt of court.

The Palike has also not identified any of the 552 trees specifically, apart from stating that they are old trees, small trees or merely trees. This, the Group found, “clearly reveals a serious non-application of mind on the part of the applicant agency and also the reviewing officers. This also indicates a callous approach in appreciating the real heritage of Bangalore – its avenue trees – which is wantonly being proposed for felling.”

Alarmed by reports that over a thousand trees would be felled by BBMP for various infrastructure projects, the Karnataka High Court had earlier taken up a suo motu petition. The Palike’s conten­tion was traffic decongestion. But the court had observed that traffic problems were more due to poor planning than narrow roads. High Court judge, Justice DV Shylendra Kumar had even suspected the role of a timber mafia eyeing unfair profits by buying the felled trees for a song.

The court’s observation was stinging: It ruled that the civic agency had failed to protect century-old trees and had violated the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, and other environmental legislations.

But the Palike contended that the trees would be axed only wherever necessary, and only after obtaining necessary permission from the competent authorities. Dismissing the existence of any such timber mafia, it maintained that the felled trees are disposed of through a public auction at rates fixed by the competent authorities. It also cited its tree transplantation exercises, and argued that the loss of tree cover was compensated by planting lakhs of saplings.

Yet, the lack of any roadside tree in hundreds of private layouts in the newly added BBMP areas tell a different story. The narrow, severely encroached roads of these localities have no space for even a sapling. With only a few planned layouts, the city is expanding sans any greenery of worth. As repeatedly pointed out by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, this alarming trend has played havoc with the city’s climate. Islands of heat hover above these areas, and during summer, this could get only worse.

Individual tree felling

If large road projects claim hundreds of trees, the cumulative effect of individual tree-fellings across the city is no less worrisome for the environment. The Palike’s Tree Officer (Assistant Conservator of Forests) attached to the Tree Authority issues about 3,000 permissions for axing trees every year. However, until recently, there was no formal record on the reason for the tree-felling. BBMP proposed to change this with an online system where applicants can request permissions online. Objections could also be posted here. The Palike’s Tree Authority eventually decides on the veracity of the request.

The legislation is clear that trees should be the last casualty in any project plan. However, this rule has been often violated. Trees were the first to go in the case of the Sankey road widening project and the underpass in Basavanagudi near Krishna Rao Park. It took a vociferous protest by the local residents to stall a plan to fell several decades-old tree for a metro station in Jayanagar. Urban experts are clear that public consultations has to be held before starting any project that require tree-felling.  

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