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A tree-planting manifesto for Bengaluru

A tree-planting manifesto for Bengaluru

If the unbearable ongoing summer in Bengaluru has taught us anything, it is that our infrastructure has consistently prioritised automobile-centric infrastructure over people-centric infrastructure. Large trees provide canopies, whereas small trees make space for road widening and parking.

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Last Updated : 09 May 2024, 23:05 IST
Last Updated : 09 May 2024, 23:05 IST
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Recently, the media reported about a group of Bengaluru-based entrepreneurs and philanthropists planning to plant around ten thousand cherry blossom trees in the city’s Central Business District. While such initiatives to enhance the city’s green infrastructure are necessary from both the government and private sectors, they must consider the impact of planting any tree on urban ecology. 

Cherry blossoms add aesthetic appeal to urban landscapes. However, careful attention must be paid to the choice of tree species for planting. For instance, cherry blossoms thrive in colder climates and are ill-suited for tropical regions such as Bengaluru, where they would require more water to thrive. Given Bengaluru’s water crisis, it is imperative to make informed decisions regarding the city’s ecological well-being. 

When private parties undertake such initiatives, the government must lead by implementing legally binding planting policies. All urban local bodies in Karnataka must develop such policies to guide planting initiatives undertaken by various parties for their cities. Currently, there is a gap in the legal framework, lacking standards for institutions conducting planting activities to adhere to, resulting in the prioritisation of species unsuitable for tropical climates. 

Presently, the Department of Forest, Government of Karnataka, provides general guidelines through the “Species and Planting Technique Models” document, which addresses various planting techniques for different regions of the state. For ‘city and town planning’, they have a set of guidelines based on the region that the city/town is located in. However, the document is not a binding legal instrument that can be enforced. Moreover, it is limited to techniques of planting and provides a list of species that can be planted. It does not address the issue of compensatory planting for trees cut during infrastructure development.

The Problem

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has been granting permission to the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) to cut trees for metro rail development. The compensatory planting by the BMRCL is often carried out at locations different from where the trees were cut. For instance, a BMRCL public notice mentions saplings being planted by them at the newly developed Kempe Gowda layout while the trees were cut in areas between Agara and Ibbalur to develop the Outer Ring Road metro rail. The compensatory planting is in response to a High Court order, proving that the entire exercise was mandated due to judicial intervention and not as a matter of legislative or policy intent. 

Scholars Harini Nagendra and Divya Gopal have previously researched the diversity of trees in Bengaluru and observed a trend of large canopy trees being replaced by smaller ones, such as the royal palm, due to road widening and metro projects. The shift is evident on the Ambedkar Veedhi in front of the Vidhana Soudha, which got a makeover due to the construction of the purple line metro, is lined with palm trees instead of larger canopy trees. This leaves us with a two-tier problem: first, that planting is not occurring at the site of cutting, denying that site future greenery; and second, that large canopy trees are not being planted, denying future reductions in temperature and shade. 

If the unbearable ongoing summer in Bengaluru has taught us anything, it is that our infrastructure has consistently prioritised automobile-centric infrastructure over people-centric infrastructure. Large trees provide canopies, whereas small trees make space for road widening and parking. Urban tree canopies automatically reduce heat risks during rising temperatures. Commuters on the road, especially pedestrians, cyclists, and non-AC bus riders, deserve respite during their commute; and tree canopies can ensure that. 

Karnataka’s cities need planting bye-laws as a part of a larger urban heat risk mitigation intervention through the law. Recently,  a bill was tabled in the US Congress that aimed at mitigating urban heat risks. While it has not been enacted yet, one of the most important aspects of the bill is the prioritisation of native trees and trees with ‘high shade production’ and ‘carbon sequestration.’ 

Similarly, legally binding bye-laws on planting need to specify trees that are important for the city’s topography, as studies suggest that planting the wrong trees can further the effects of climate change. The legal framework must also look at multi-functional trees. For example, Azim Premji University’s Tree Planting Guide for Houses and Apartments in Bengaluru speaks of
Kadu Sampige trees that provide canopy as well as help with conserving groundwater. 

Policymakers can engage ecologists to arrive at parameters to consider while developing such policies. They must also consult the public and understand what types of trees would lead to urban citizens taking ownership of the city’s green infrastructure. Biodiversity, such as urban birds and animals that rely on greenery, must also be accounted for. 

Beyond laying down the types of species themselves, it must also solve for compensatory planting to ensure that planting occurs where trees are being cut. The government can harness technology and maintain databases of trees being planted and the tree census of the city. The BBMP has time and again defaulted on a timely tree census in Bengaluru. If academic researchers are able to carry out such studies on the diversity of trees in the city, methods to carry out censuses exist and must simply be harnessed by the State machinery. 

Ensuring that these are clearly laid down by the law would make it easier for people to hold their governments accountable and would not require the judicial intervention that often comes post facto. The law must act before there are dire consequences for the biodiversity of the city. Urbanisation will continue in Karnataka, and the government must therefore aim to ensure that the cities are liveable. A green cover is one way of ensuring that. When such direction exists via the law, planting can be
done to make the city ‘cooler’ and cooler in temperature.

(The writer is a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru)

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