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For 10 years, K.N. Narayana Pillai fought a running battle with the Chennai Corporation to remove a tree leaning over the compound wall of his house in Mylapore.

Then in November 2008, it fell, damaging a portion of his house. “I restored all the facilities and sent the bill to the Mayor, but nothing has come of it,” the 83-year-old says.

“Using the Right to Information Act I learnt that it [the fall] was classified as a natural calamity. I spent Rs.16,000 to rebuild the compound wall. It was a huge tree and the timber would have fetched the Chennai Corporation enough to pay me the damages,” says Mr. Pillai. Since his wife is critically ill, he has not pursued the matter further, he added.

The green canopy along the road sides can sometimes prove hazardous to the public. Last year, the Fire and Rescue Services department received some 150 calls about falling trees and building collapses in November and December. They attended to 15 calls last November and removed trees or branches that fell on cars and houses, and rescued trapped victims.

The Fire helpline receives calls from areas such as Kilpauk, Egmore, Thousand Lights, Chintadripet, Ashok Nagar and Nungambakkam. In June 2009, in Tambaram a dozen trees were uprooted causing a traffic breakdown there.

Anuja Vineeth of Sixth Avenue, Anna Nagar, recalls how a 40-year-old tree fell on Fifth Main Road recently; luckily no one was injured. “The Chennai Corporation has dug up roads to widen them endangering the life of avenue trees. Though the residents suggest pruning, the workers chop them down,” she says.

Meteorological Department officials say gales with speed of 33 nautical miles (60 km) during cyclonic storms can uproot trees. But now-a-days even thunder squalls occurring any time of the year can damage trees as rains loosen the soil, exposing the roots.

Last month, an uprooted tree in Chetpet affected traffic for several hours, a fireman points out.

Chennai has nearly four lakh trees and every year, about 10,000 saplings are added, mainly in parks and playgrounds. According to D. Narasimhan, professor of Botany, Madras Christian College, even trees that are 50 years old require maintenance. They must be pruned to make them sturdier.

Forest Department officials say though different species are planted, the city has a large number of rain trees, Pipal and oilseed trees. Sturdy varieties such as Neem and copper pod would be ideal as avenue trees. Also, the civic bodies have not made efforts to survey the number of trees in the city and suburbs, they said.

Tree Bank, which has 155 volunteers, many of them students, who take care of the trees in their respective wards. G. Mullaivanam, founder of Tree Bank, said “Most trees are not even planted properly. The pit dug to plant a tree must be at least three feet deep and four feet wide so that it can take root. Even advertisement hoardings can weaken a tree. Local level monitoring is the key,” he emphasises.

Having planted more than 36,000 trees in the city in the past eight years, the organisation has adopted a model for tree protection. Two volunteers in the street where a sapling is planted take an oath to look after it. “Even if one forgets, the other can step in. Community participation is essential,” he says.

Corporation initiatives

The Chennai Corporation recently issued circular on selection of garden avenue trees, and a squad has been formed to identify weak trees. Most of the falling tree were in South Chennai.

According to an official, more saplings of varieties such as golden shower, crape myrtle, aloe wood, African tulip tree, pink trumpet tree, gulmohar, rosy trumpet tree, India tulip tree and Pungania pinnata will be planted soon. The civic body is now focusing on planting trees with deep roots. During the rains, the trees are pruned every 15 days and in summer, every 30 days.

Normally, the civic agency takes two months to cut down trees. But during the monsoon, the trees posing a danger to residents would be removed on a fast track process.

Two teams for cutting trees have been kept ready at Nungambakkam and Anna Nagar, the official adds.

Officials say that the trees that fall during monsoon are cut and carted away and are not auctioned off as timber and that the uprooted trees do not come under the purview of the treasury.

(With inputs from R. Sujatha, K. Lakshmi, Liffy Thomas, T. Madhavan, Ajai Sreevatsan, Aloysius Xavier Lopez and Petlee Peter)

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