BENGALURU: The transition between the baking heat of the summer and the torrential downpour of the early monsoon rains is a tough one for India’s trees. In the heat, residents complain bitterly of the lack of tree shade. Once the rains begin, the damage caused by fallen trees often changes the discourse. Moving away from discussions that stress the need to plant and protect trees, the media instead begins to debate whether we need trees on the streets at all.
This flip-flop in public perception points to the challenge with trees in public places – they can be a boon or bane, depending on the way they are managed. Ill-trained and indifferent tree management, combined with bad species selection and lack of involvement of local residents, have led to a situation where there is no thought or care for trees in public places.
But without trees on roads, as our own research in Bengaluru shows, we will have to face the brunt of global warming, urban heat islands and air pollution, unbuffered. We must revamp our approach to tree care in cities.Earlier, foresters like SG Neginhal - the nonagenarian forester who planted lakhs of trees in Bengaluru - selected tall saplings, less likely to be destroyed by grazing cows and goats.
They planted them at regular intervals, so that the shade of one tree would not stop its neighbor from thriving – but yet close enough that their canopies formed an interconnected tunnel of shade along which people could walk in comfort. Saplings were carefully placed in deep, well manured pits, and protected with tree guards. At least a foot of open space was left around the trunk of the tree, to ensure adequate groundwater infiltration to supply the tree with the water it needs.
The choice of trees was made after consulting residents. For instance, in narrow lanes, species like neem and drumstick, which do not take up too much space, were selected, as residents could get flowers, fruits and medicinal products from them. On broad roads massive trees like the rain tree, spectacular flowering trees like the yellow and pink Tabebuias and the white Akash Mallige were planted, alongside sacred trees like peepal and banyan.
Roping in local residents helped ensure the saplings were watered in the hot summer months. This early care ensured that trees were deep rooted and stable. Many of the gigantic rain trees near Mysuru Palace, and on Rose Garden Road in Jayanagar, Bengaluru, are between 60-100 years old, healthy and magnificent examples from this earlier age of planting.
Today, trees are squeezed into tiny spaces, on road medians and sides of the road. Their branches are hacked to make way for cables, advertisements and glitzy commercial frontages. Their roots are repeatedly dug up and hacked for road repairs of various kinds. Concrete is often poured right up to the tree trunk, leaving the tree starved of water!
Trunks are damaged by nails and hoardings. Instead of selecting trees based on space constraints, the wrong trees are planted – such as the Ficus that is commonly seen on many road medians in Bangalore, which will soon grow too large to fit the narrow space requirements. Trees that are unbalanced due to lopping of their branches, whose roots are shallow because of concreting, with repeated wounds, stressed by pollution and heat, will naturally have a limited life span. It is no surprise that these trees fall over in a heavy rain or a wind squall in 10-20 years, while our earlier giant heritage trees still stand strong and proud.