Would children turn out to be the deus ex machina that turns around the planet’s fortunes? After Greta Thunberg and Licypriya Kangujam, one has to be a fuddy-duddy to discount that possibility. Over 600 school and college students from Tamil Nadu have just joined the rapidly swelling ranks of young environmental activists.
These youngsters are batting for a strong hedge of protection around trees in urban spaces and non-forested tracts.
On August 27, they made a written plea to Chief Minister MK Stalin;
V Irai Anbu, Chief Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Government; and Supriya Sahu, Principal Secretary, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Government of Tamil Nadu, for an Urban Trees Protection Act that would prevent abuse and indiscriminate felling of trees in such spaces, and ensure their care.
Just as a massive banyan grows out of a miniscule seed, this initiative grew out of a classroom in Perungudi.
Rhea Suresh, a Class XI student of Abacus Montessori School in Perungudi, explains that every year as part of a citizenship programme, eleventh-graders decide upon an issue and go about addressing it.
M Yuvan, a naturalist who runs what is called ‘Earth Farm Society Curriculum’ at the school suggested to the students that they consider “helping” urban trees.
The 20 eleventh-graders were up for it, with the idea of “helpless trees” touching a powerful chord in some of them.
- *The petition seeks a tree authority comprising Government officials and citizens who will “work for the conservation, education and better management of trees in urban areas”.
- *It bats for heritage status for all trees over 50 years of age, which would automatically accord them “special protection with free and proper maintenance”.
- *There should be regular recording of trees in each zone to ensure their continual maintenance, the petition says. That should be part of a larger “programme to comprehensively map, monitor and care for urban trees”.
- *Besides a tree helpline, a request has been made for a tree app “for the public to report tree abuse”. The app should “be updated about activities and laws, engage actively with urban greening”. The petition also highlights the necessity of creating a culture of accountability where violence/ abuse of trees is met with “heavy fine and penal action”.
- *The petition also spells out “compensatory afforestation” where trees have received the axe.
- *It wants the Act to ensure native and and habitat-specific species are carefully chosen to maintain ecological balance of a given area. It also seeks “special recognition of mangrove species and promotion of mangrove afforestation”.
Madhumitha Kannan, another eleventh-grader, and Rhea share their experience of having witnessed a tree being felled in their apartment, in Velachery and Perungudi respectively, before any possible alternatives being considered.
Madhumitha says existing laws about protecting trees in urban and non-forested tracts are so nebulous that they are hardly protective when push comes to axe.
The letter drafted by the students particularly punctuates the idea that trees in private spaces be accorded a dignity commensurate with their age. Decisions to axe trees to deal with practical problems should be defensible, and up for a discussion.
To attain wrought-iron certainty about questions around trees, the 20-member students’ team had to go through three rounds of preparation.
The first round was one of appreciation. The students were asked to meet up with the trees in their neighbourhood.
“Each of us took a list of trees in their area, noting down the species they belonged to. This exercise was carried out in our own localities — in and around our houses, our apartments,” says Madhumitha.
Rhea weighs in: “Yuvan sir gave us a reference notebook of sorts that listed around 20 common species that are seen around Chennai. The leaves of the trees that we could not identify, we took photos of and sent to him. There were some trees we could identify, as we were aware of their leaf structures, having learnt about them in the Farm class.”
Next up, the students were encouraged to read up on how laws in other states robustly protect urban trees. They particularly mention how helpful boning up on the tree laws in Maharashtra and West Bengal proved while drafting the petition.
While this exercise sharpened their understanding of the various facets to tree protection, it all came together for the students only when they set foot in the Kotturpuram Urban Forest.
“We met there as a class, walked around the place, and learnt about the trees there and that is when we decided what the petition was going to be about. A week after that, we started drafting it. Some of us drafted the letter. Some of us made posters. Another group translated the letter into Tamil and so we had the petition in both languages,” says Rhea.
Yuvan reveals that managing trustee of Nizhal Shobha Menon (who is in the vanguard of the campaign for a Tree Act in Tamil Nadu) and social and environmental activist TD Babu brought critical inputs to the petition while it was being drafted by the students.
Madhumitha places the various contributions in perspective: “All of us were working on different aspects of the issue to bring together one full campaign. The letter part is the main aspect of it. However, the more challenging part was getting endorsements for the letter. Because, no campaign can be successful without support. Many a time, we are not taken seriously because we are just children.”
Before it was dispatched to the afore-mentioned recipients, the petition had received endorsements from over 600 school and college students from around 100 institutions in Tamil Nadu.
Yuvan underlines the range of endorsements elevates the petition from being a one-school initiative to a united call for change.
“Trees play important social roles; they protect people. The isthrikarar (the one who irons clothes for a living) and the flower vendor work under a tree. If that tree is protected their livelihood is protected. On a larger scale, if mangroves are protected, livelihoods of the fisherfolk in the region will be automatically protected,” Yuvan illustrates how the petition has an indispensable social and economic sub-text to it.