Trees have never had it so bad, or so good, depending on which way you look at it. On the one hand, everywhere from Aarey Milk Colony, Mumbai, to the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology, Egmore, they are being cut down in the name of development. On the other hand, all of this felling, which would have otherwise passed unnoticed, has made it to the news, with environmentalists and lay nature-lovers crying foul. Trees evoke emotions these days. The question however is, can expansion of civic services be forever held back in the name of protecting nature? Or is there some other way out?
In the case of Aarey Milk Colony, the trees had to make way for a Metro Rail shed. By the time the matter reached the courts and a stay was pronounced, as many as 1,000 trees had been cut down. The Egmore Eye Hospital had a happier outcome though the area and the numbers of trees involved (four acres with 75 trees) were much smaller. The persons filing the public interest litigation were local residents and so, in a way, stakeholders.The Courts have ordered a stay and the trees are safe, for now. Could the Metro Rail shed have been located elsewhere? Perhaps. Could the Egmore Eye Hospital have planned its new structures in a different part of the campus? Certainly, for there is ample space available. Then why did it chose only the tree-shaded part of its premises? We will never know. We need to however be thankful that because this was a government-owned premises, news of plans to deforest came to be known in advance. Had it been a private property, or had the space been cleared for a party meeting, would there have been any time to approach the courts?
How can the Government prevent such occurrences in future? It can, in a way, take a leaf out of what has been done in matters concerning heritage buildings. The High Court had in 2010 or thereabouts, ordered that 468 buildings be listed and that the CMDA appoint a committee to look into whether they needed to be preserved. While what followed was largely disappointing, it cannot be denied that demolition of heritage structures has become a little more difficult than what it was in the past. True, a few owners have managed to get around this restriction but they have done so after taking recourse to due process of law. While we may lament the destruction of buildings such as Binny’s, Gordon Woodroffe and D’Angeli’s, we cannot deny that the decision to demolish was arrived at by the Government after some consideration and study.
It therefore becomes necessary to have a survey done of green pockets within the city, list the number of trees in them and also document rare and ageing specimens. An NGO such as Nizhal probably already has these details and so the Government can enlist their support as well. Once this is done, it is necessary that the findings be published together with classification of such pockets into categories – must preserve, may be preserved and need not be preserved. There has to be a well-reasoned argument as to why green areas fall into one of the three groupings. And as and when some trees in the last category need to go, there has to be a plan or commitment from those who are responsible for the felling as to where and how they propose to make up for the loss in numbers. A tight watch needs to be kept on how the new trees fare and a study conducted periodically on how the city scores when it comes to green cover.
Presently, trees evoke a lot of emotion but every little action is forthcoming. While we do not like to see a tree being cut, letting them grow wild is also not an option. They need to be pruned periodically for public safety. Similarly, while we appreciate greenery, we do not seem to be able to do anything about people nailing signboards, cables and hoardings on to them.
Let us ponder over all these aspects and arrive at a tree policy for our city.
This article was published in Madras Musings in the December 1st, 2019 issue. I then discovered that a similar demand for a Tree Act was written about by me in 2014. Certain things never change!