Trees in trouble
Plans are afoot to fell thousands of trees to make way for roads. Kathyayini Chamaraj wonders why trees have to always bear the brunt of development.
The voiceless victims of development, or rather, the devastation of Bangalore are its road-side trees, which until now also constituted its pride and soul. But, in the mercenary rush characteristic of new Bangalore, trees are considered a nuisance to be hacked away at the slightest inconvenience.
The latest is, of course, that the trees are a hindrance to people rushing about in their individual cocoons, called cars. Whole lines of trees on 84 roads, numbering thousands, are to be hacked away because Bangalore, if it has to be a global city with any self-respect, has to have 6-laned roads.
Alternative Law Forum, CIVIC, Environment Support Group, and a few concerned individuals, under the banner of Hasiru Usiru (HU), are daring to raise their voice against this collective suicide.
The body authorised to give permission for felling trees in any urban area is the Tree Authority, to be set up under the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976. HU has questioned whether this has been constituted, with three non-official representatives, and if its permission has been taken for the large-scale felling of trees.
HU has questioned whether road-widening is necessary at all since the proposed Metro will be passing through many of these areas and the quantum of vehicular traffic is expected to reduce on these roads.
Surprisingly, the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), which has been passed by the Union Cabinet in 2006, has enlightened elements, which have come as a god-send to HU activists.
The vision of NUTP is to recognise that “people occupy centre-stage in our cities and all plans would be for their common benefit and well being”. The NUTP recognises that “a disproportionate amount of road space is being allocated to personal vehicles”. The mission of the NUTP is hence to bring about “a more equitable allocation of road space with people, rather than vehicles, as its main focus” and “encourage greater use of public transport and non-motorised modes”.
The NUTP says the vision and mission can be achieved “by reserving lanes and corridors exclusively for public transport and non-motorised modes of travel”. The drawings of the plans to widen some of the roads, such as Palace Road and Seshadri Road, which have been given to HU, merely show two red lines indicating the new width of the road. The final design of the roads has not been given.
HU has been questioning why an earlier decision to create dedicated lanes for cycles and two and three-wheelers, while retaining the trees as the median, was given up, after public assurances regarding the same were given in newspapers? Urban Planner Dr S Prasanna has submitted that it is possible to do this. In Bangalore, where the chaos and deaths are mainly due to cycles and two and three-wheelers weaving in and out amidst 4-wheelers, there is a case for such a design for the road. This would not only preserve the road’s aesthetics and be environment-friendly, but also add to road capacity, while enhancing safety and speed of travel.
The NUTP calls for the setting up of a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority in all 1-million plus cities for better coordination. Karnataka is however one of the first states which has done this by setting up the Bangalore Metropolitan Land Transport Authority (BMLTA). The NUTP also calls for an ‘integrated urban transport policy and plan’ which looks at multi-dimensional ways of de-congesting the city. Widening roads has never provided the solution for congestion anywhere in the world.
The NUTP states that the Centre is willing to finance projects that “divert funds from projects that add to road capacity towards public transit systems” and “to promote non-motorised transport”. These points could be made use of to acquire more land, if necessary, along these roads to create additional lanes, while retaining the trees. As most of the lands in these areas belong to government, this should not be difficult.
In response to the memorandum submitted on 30.10.07 to the Governor by CIVIC on behalf of HU, the Chief Secretary & Chairman of the BMLTA called for a special meeting of the BMLTA and allowed CIVIC to make a 10-minute presentation on November 30, 2007. The meeting failed to address almost all of the concerns expressed by HU. Disappointed, a public meeting was called by HU on December 20, 2007. However, not a single member of BMLTA participated.
Meanwhile, a Comprehensive Traffic and Transportation Plan for Bangalore (CTTPB) has been drawn up by KUIDFC, accepts all the suggestions made in the NUTP but in its implementation plan, includes only a few of the measures. It does identify certain out-lying roads for the creation of Bus Rapid Transport System. But, it seems to accept road-widening as inevitable and hence many of the measures suggested and allocations made are for road-widening and construction of underpasses. However, there are no plans for introducing fiscal incentives and disincentives, such as congestion tax, graded parking fees, etc; no identification of only-pedestrian-zones, NMV zones; car-free days, etc. which could all be undertaken in the short-term to reduce personal vehicles on the roads.
There have also been reminders from the Ministry of Urban Development to the State. The Secretary to the Government of India has requested feedback from State authorities on action taken for the implementation of NUTP 2006.
The suggestions of HU were for an integrated, holistic, sustainable and equitable urban transport system for Bangalore. The onus to establish the rationale, on the same lines, for the current ad hoc decision to widen roads and fell trees, lies on the current decision-makers. Until the rationale and justification for the current decision is established, the plans to fell trees must be put on hold.