Trees in the big city

How Chennai is growing its own forests

A snapshot of the Adyar creek   | Photo Credit: A Lakshmikanthan

Chennai made news internationally this year, but it was not a proud moment for its residents. Headlines like The New York Times’ ‘Life in a City Without Water’ and Instagram posts by celebrities-cum-environmentalists like Leonardo DiCaprio about our water crisis only underlined what we’ve known for a long time: that we are playing fast and loose with our natural resources.

Over the last few years, the city has witnessed several climate extremities: floods in 2015, Cyclone Vardah in 2016 (which brought down over a lakh of trees), diminishing rains in 2017 and 2018, and finally the drought in 2019. This year, however, local conversations on what we can do to offset such disasters have finally moved beyond a few select groups. One of the points of focus is planting saplings — not just to regain what we lost in 2016 but for the role trees play in our environment.

Brown Tree Drive
  • Over the last 11 years, Gopal Mullaivanam — the man behind Chennai NGO, Tree Bank — has planted over 1.47 crore saplings across Tamil Nadu. A few years ago, he launched the Brown Tree Project, which encourages people to identify sick trees in the city. As part of this year’s drive, 176 trees were identified and tended to across the 15 zones. “The numbers have come down. In 2016, the city had over 500 such trees,” he says. Starting January 2020, Mullaivanam will team up with the Chennai Corporation to launch an awareness drive. “We will plant a sapling in place of a felled tree and put up paintings to indicate why the tree died,” he concludes.

If you didn’t know already, forests help create rain. “They ‘seed’ the air through transpiration (cooling the air and increasing cloud cover) and also help in water retention,” explains Pamela Malhotra, of Coorg’s SAI Sanctuary, recalling how, despite a horrific drought a couple of years ago “our water didn’t dry up. We got 171 inches of rain in the monsoon, whereas just some distance away, they had only 18 inches”. All thanks to over 300 acres of land that she and her husband helped replant. Closer home, Jaswant Singh, an entrepreneur who has been developing a 13,000 sq ft forest in his Mogappair home, exemplifies Malhotra’s words — his trees helped replenish the water table so much that he did not face any scarcity this year. In fact, he had excess water to give others.

Meanwhile, the Corporation of Chennai has announced a ₹228-crore project to up the city’s green cover, from 14.9% to 20.2%, by 2023. Starting late last year, they’ve planted around a lakh saplings — of 103 different species of native trees that are ideal for our hot, humid weather, monsoon rains, and water and wind conditions. The target is to plant about a million more (two lakh a year) in the next five years, as avenue trees, traffic islands and green, open spaces.

Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. As we enter another decade,we look at a few individual and community initiatives that, if supported and sustained, will help recharge our green lungs and water tables.

Nizhal, Kotturpuram Tree Park

Plans for 2020: To set up a Tree Resource Centre for Chennai

This NGO is behind the tree parks in Kotturpuram, Madhavaram and Chitlapakkam, and the building of green corridors around water bodies to serve as a bio-shield and to prevent breaching during floods. However, roadblocks often pop up, thanks to inefficient government planning. There was outrage recently when officials “erroneously” destroyed a portion of the Kotturpuram Tree Park — with over a hundred trees and shrubs — while attempting to strengthen the bunds along the Adyar Estuary. Nizhal, which had set up the park 13 years ago, is now rebuilding the destroyed area.

Shobha Menon, Founder of Nizhal and (right) Chithra Viswanathan at the Kotturpuram Tree Park

Shobha Menon, Founder of Nizhal and (right) Chithra Viswanathan at the Kotturpuram Tree Park   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shobha Menon, the trustee and founder-member overseeing the replanting, says, “We’d transformed a 4.5-acre [government-owned land] dump yard into an urban forest. There is tremendous challenge in maintaining such a bio-diverse space in the heart of the city and we’ve managed to do so thanks to several hundred volunteers over the last decade.” The park is a green haven, especially for senior citizens and children. “Schools bring children to visit and many volunteer, filling nursery packs with soil and watering the seedlings. College students intern with us and researchers visit us,” says Menon, who also works with government departments to create green spaces such as the Chitlappakkam Neer Vanam and Madhavaram Tree Park, besides hospital campuses and the Maadi Poonga (hanging gardens) in North Chennai.

“The idea is to link with citizens to transform open spaces. Working at a grassroots level can be more productive if people let go of the sense of entitlement over such lung spaces, and instead, help create and nurture them,” she says.

We must Act
  • In India, trees are covered by the Indian Forest Act. Under this, individual states have created their own regulations, such as the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act. “It lays down procedures for the removal of trees,” says activist Stalin Dayanand, adding how environmental groups contested the felling of trees in Aarey using this act. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have their own, but Chennai is lagging behind. “Nizhal has been reiterating the need of a Tree Authority and even suggested a draft of the act. A few years ago, the former state minister of forests, Palanivelu, announced it in Assembly, but it did not progress any further. Finally, it is about priorities,” says Menon.

CRRT, Adyar Creek

Plans for 2020: To create 9 sq m of green cover per person

The Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust has been consistently working to green the 358-acre Adyar Creek. V Kalaiarasan, project officer at CRRT, says the target is to repopulate the area with suitable flora. “We’ve developed a green belt along the water bodies, planting indigenous saplings such as neem, jamun and Pongamia pinnata (pongam), besides creating mangroves,” he adds. More than 1.7 lakh saplings of 170 native species have been planted between 2010 and 2016. “Restoration has also been initiated on the Adyar and Cooum river banks with riverine vegetation. The plan is to achieve the ideal green cover of nine square metres per individual.” This green space is open to the public every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Krishna Kumar Suresh, founder and director of Thuvakkam and (right) volunteers at work

Krishna Kumar Suresh, founder and director of Thuvakkam and (right) volunteers at work   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Thuvakkam, across Chennai

Plans for 2020: To plant 4,000 saplings, in Thuraipakkam or Moulivakkam, on land allotted by CoC

The Miyawaki method, popularised by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, is a technique of growing dense plantations in a short period of time. Krishna Kumar Suresh, founder and director of Thuvakkam, is working to establish about 112 of these ‘forests’ in government schools in Chennai and the Thiruvallur district. At their first project (in October 2018), at the Jain Public School in Chromepet, the team planted 40 trees — including Pongamia, poovarasu, badam — in a 200 sq ft area. “We witnessed distinct growth within four months. Usually, after two years, trees gain around 10-12 ft in height, but here, within a year, we saw a height gain of 15-16 ft,” he says.

While Chennai’s outskirts are still green, within the city, be it Royapettah or Anna Nagar, there is a dire need for greenery. “The impact on the water table and bio-diversity will be felt if people allow us to create these forests in these areas,” Suresh adds. This February, the group planted 150 saplings across 1,500 sq ft in Poonamalee, and another 1,600 saplings in a 15,000 sq ft plot in Thoothukudi, with the assistance of the corporation. Besides this, they also developed spaces in Chennai’s MIOT hospital. “We do a soil test, check the PH value, add organic matter and then plant with a gap of two to three feet between each sapling. Normally, 300 saplings are recommended for 1,000 sq ft, but we plant just 200, to allow for stem growth.”

Jaswant Singh at his home in Mogappair

Jaswant Singh at his home in Mogappair   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Jaswant Singh, urban forest

Singh leads by example. Over the past 35 years, he has transformed his plot and terrace in Mogappair into a 13,000 sq ft extended forest. “I began with tulsi and today I have trees like sandalwood and red sander, along with over 350 varieties of herbs and a vertical garden,” he says.

Star power
  • The World Health Organisation recommends a minimum availability of nine square metres of tree cover per individual. Chennai has just 0.46 sq m of open space and one tree for every 33 people, according to a report submitted by Care Earth Trust to the Greater Chennai Corporation. Following the likes of actor Dia Mirza and former cricketer Kapil Dev who have headlined several tree plantation drives, Kollywood actor Vivekh does his bit with the Green Kalam initiative. Since 2010, he and his team have planted over 33 lakh saplings of native tree species in the city. “We go to schools and colleges where we know they will be looked after. We also visit residential areas such as Boat Club and Besant Nagar on request,” he says.

Thousands have visited his home to see how he has created an urban forest, but he wishes they would also replicate his work. If even 5,000 individuals followed suit, Chennai would be a better place to live in, he says. Hopefully, this year’s proof of how trees help increase the ground water table — as mentioned, he didn’t suffer a single day of water scarcity — will inspire more people to plant trees.

With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:42:25 AM |

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