Trees versus traffic tree transplant?

Green canopy Avenue trees are necessary but must be trimmed to ensure smooth flow of traffic

Green canopy Avenue trees are necessary but must be trimmed to ensure smooth flow of traffic   | Photo Credit: Photo: K. Pichumani

Should we cut down trees to ease traffic congestion? DIVYA KUMARon the city’s peculiar predicament

It’s not exactly news that trees are Nature’s antidote to the blistering Chennai summer. Or that they need to be conserved because they provide shade from the glaring sun, produce oxygen, reduce pollution and lower the temperature of the surroundings, among many other things.

The trouble is that in an ever-growing metropolis like Chennai, these sprawling green machines sometimes get in the way. Take for example the recent disputes over the cutting of trees to widen roads and construct grid separators (or flyovers). A public interest litigation has resulted in the Madras High Court ordering a stay on the felling of trees along G. N. Chetty Road, North and South Usman Roads, C. P. Ramaswamy Road and TTK Road until an expert panel makes its recommendations later this month.

So what do you do in a case like this? Do you save the trees? Or widen the roads and ease the traffic?

Theodore Bhaskaran, a long time naturalist, believes that cutting trees may sometimes be a necessity. “My heart bleeds, but I know it has to be done,” he says. “For the last 30 years, I’ve seen cases of people dying after crashing into trees with frightening regularity. We have to be pragmatic.”

Scientific approach

Dr. Narasimhan, botany professor at the Madras Christian College and a member of the court-appointed panel, agrees. “Trees in an urban space need to be managed, not fully conserved,” he says. “Some people become very emotional about the issue, but we need to be scientific in our approach to conservation.”

But the problem is pragmatism often translates into irresponsibility in practice, according to M. B. Nirmal, founder and chairman of Exnora. “The contractors are mostly in a desperate hurry and just clear the trees before anyone can react,” he says. “There is no long-term vision.”

Planning needed

The answer, it seems, is more planning and discussion among the different stakeholders — the corporation, the contractors, the experts and the public. Issues like road space, location, span of a tree and public use need to be studied before a decision can be taken on which trees need to go and which can be kept, maybe with some cutting or pruning. “If the trees can be saved, they should be,” says Dr. Narasimhan.

The C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre has made its contribution towards this process. The group has submitted a preliminary study of the 100-plus trees on TTK Road to the expert panel, recording their species, age, girth and span, and suggesting that only a small number may actually need to be cut to widen the road, according to P. Sudhakar, joint director.

However, the larger issue of planning for the environmental future of the city remains. “We should plant trees in areas that we can,” says Bhaskaran. “That’s what environmentalists should be agitating for rather than opposing the cutting of a few trees because they’re familiar sights around the city.”

But this planting of trees must be scientifically managed as well. “One of the problems we have is too many agencies are involved in the planting of trees — corporations, NGOs and individuals — and most have little idea of what the tree’s span or growth rate or height will be,” says Dr. Narasimhan. “So when it grows, it causes the kind of problems we’re seeing today.” This, he suggests, can be resolved by appointing a planning group that looks into which trees should be planted where. Nirmal adds that the city also needs a tree authority which controls the cutting of trees, to prevent people from chopping them down indiscriminately for commercial reasons, or for example, because they are told to do so based on vaastu shastra. “In Singapore, you cannot even cut a tree on your private property without inspections and licensing from the tree authority,” he says.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Such planning and coordination will be difficult to achieve and there will be many a hurdle to cross, especially for funding. However, the temporary stay on the cutting of trees and the appointment of the expert panel by the high court certainly seems like a good start.

8220;When we constructed this building, we transplanted those two neem trees and put them across the street,” he says.

Unfortunately, transplantation doesn’t always work. “Often, transplanted trees don’t survive very long because they tend not to establish roots properly,” says Dr. Narasimhan, botany professor at the Madras Christian College. “Also the process is very expensive; we could raise a 100 new saplings for the cost of transplanting one tree.”

However, transplantation remains an option, particularly to save rare trees or those of historical significance.

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