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Updated: June 14, 2014 02:08 IST

Standing tall in a concrete jungle

Neha Sinha
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Cities are centres of our enterprise, ingenuity and design, and trees form a part of this, for reasons aesthetic, cultural, or related to our health and well-being

On May 30, a thunderstorm blew into the national capital. Within minutes, the sky had turned a deep yellow. Winds blew at the rate of 92 kilometres per hour. And within approximately half an hour, hundreds of trees were uprooted, crushing cars, people and snapping power lines.

One of the most common signs of urbanisation — electric poles — also fell. In my street, three electric poles fell, like scarecrows in the wind. The rain-washed, glistening National Capital Region was plunged into darkness, with some areas not regaining electricity for days.

Expanding cities, falling trees

As houses grow and parking areas shrink, more than a few people have expressed their scorn for trees in the capital, one of the world’s greenest. In several parts of the city, trees have been concretised up to the roots, in a frantic bid to grab land for parking or as a way to justify expensive urbanisation budgets. Our expanding cities are central to the reason for trees falling. And when they do fall, the small plots where they once stood, typically 4 feet by 4 feet, are quickly tiled over and converted into parking space, most prominently in residential areas and roadsides. In some places, excessive tiling or indeed tiling over of the area where a city tree once stood has been called beautification; in others, urbanisation.

In 2007, the Delhi High Court upheld trees’ ‘right to breathe,’ when environmentalist group Kalpavriksh appealed to the Court to protect trees. The High Court said concretisation around trees on pavements in urban areas was “unnecessary and excessive,” and ordered the removal of tiles around trees in Delhi’s sidewalks. When the order was not followed, last year, the National Green Tribunal issued notices to municipal authorities to abide by the High Court order. Tragically, municipal agencies have hacked away at both the concrete and the intertwined tree roots with such carelessness that trees are falling now because of these exercises.

This brings us back to the original issue. A brief but powerful thundershower in one of the world’s greenest and most sprawling metropolitan cities can cause trees to come crashing down, causing damage to property, life and civic infrastructure. Should we listen to those who would rather have parking space than trees, and who prefer neatly laid tiles to the undulating paths shaped by the roots of an ancient tree?

The issue assumes even more importance because we consider cities as products of human enterprise. Trees are a bit of the wild within all our civilised tidiness — they bring with them insects, birds and bats, copious amounts of bird droppings, and leaves. Sometimes trees fall. Old trees challenge plans made by urban planners, politicians or other interest groups to territorialise land.

A case in point is former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s ‘Dream Park’— the Dalit Prerna Sthal — in Noida, which has memorials to Bahujan Samaj Party leaders and Dalit iconography. Built after felling thousands of trees, the “park” was premised, under several veils of enigmatic secrecy, as an urban beautification project. It received tree-cutting clearances because, in spite of having several trees and associated urban biodiversity, it was not technically a “deemed” forest. After locals went to court regarding the destruction of this green belt, the Uttar Pradesh government hurriedly planted small tree saplings in the park. The local administration brought in hundreds of potted plants overnight. Their logic was that statues and potted plants constituted a certain kind of landscaping, beautification, even afforestation. Never mind if mature trees were felled first. Never mind too, that a potted plant or a new sapling cannot replace ecosystem services, such as air filtration, and absorb noise and dust pollution, as a mature tree can.

In the humdrum of air conditioning, air purifiers, blossom-themed homes, car perfumes and noisy power backups, we appear to have forgotten that trees are the most genuine oxygen pumps we can get. As the city reels under hours of power shortages — true for several other cities in the sweltering Indian summer — the wise man is one who spreads his chair or charpayi under a grown tree.

This World Environment Day on June 5, a record of sorts was set in Kathmandu when 2,000 people simultaneously hugged trees. Trees depict in a sense the way we understand the environment itself. Hugging a tree is an analogy for embracing all of nature or the natural environment. Equally, trees that were planted decades ago are today facing ire, carelessness and fluctuating patronage in our highways and cities. With concretisation and built-up areas, water is not being allowed to seep into the earth. It follows that the roots of such trees (classified as “trees outside forests” by the Forest Survey of India) have been found to be starved of water. A study of trees in Delhi’s (rather quiet) NDMC area found that the trees there are “stressed” by water scarcity and noise pollution. Areas with more concretisation and noise would have trees in a much worse condition.

We need to evolve better pavements that would help sequester high water tables and feed the needs of a large tree. Pavement tiles with perforations and intermittent mud patches have been laid for this reason in places like the stunningly green Delhi University and should be replicated in other localities and campuses. These pavements allow water to seep into the earth rather than evaporate; they also nurture small patches of urban biodiversity. A sensitive (not hacking or slashing) removal of concrete around the base of trees is needed across our cities, and horticulturalists need to attend to the needs of grown trees, not just growing saplings.

Human design

On a dark September night last year, I was driving on Lodi road. A car appeared from the wrong side, momentarily blinding me. I swerved and hit one of the stout trees outside Mausam Bhawan. It was like hitting a wall of solid rock. The tree was unbattered, but my car was a wreck, and I had multiple fractures. When the police came to take my unmoving body to hospital, I was still wondering what had hit me.

Later, I learnt it was a Neem tree, undamaged by the entire episode. There is little doubt that trees, falling or even standing, can exert some damage on the unsuspecting human. But blaming the tree is like blaming the life-endowing Milky Way for an occasional Black Hole. Cities are centres of our enterprise, ingenuity and design, and trees form a part of this, for reasons aesthetic, cultural, or related to our health and well-being. Within the systems we have created, trees need special attention as they cannot function in isolation from nature, or as mechanised forms like our buildings, roads and lights.

Indeed, with the proliferation of built-up areas, this need — to take care of those who take care of us — is more pressing than ever. We may be confident designers and city-dwellers but we are not machines. Despite our budgets and concrete, we still need trees to help us breathe.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal.)

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