Early monsoon clouds, grey as elephant skin, span the skies over the hillock where we are planting tree saplings. From 500 saplings stacked in black plastic sleeves, I select and heave two over to nearby soil pits prepared to receive them.
These are not just any trees, I think, as I slit open the covers, without disturbing the roots. These are very particular trees. A korangupila or Cullenia exarillata sapling and a wild nutmeg or Myristica dactyloides , picked from the 120 tree species in the stack, all native to this very place in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats. A land of evergreens, a tropical rainforest, a place the great hornbills, lion-tailed macaques, and thousands of other lifeforms call home. As if echoing my thoughts, the loud bark of the hornbill sounds from the mist-breathing rainforest patch in the distance, where a 15-strong troop of macaques also lives.
It’s our 21st year attempting to ecologically restore the tropical rainforest. The slope we are planting on lies open to the sky with only a few trees — a rainforest in tatters. Like other such remnants in the landscape, it has had a long history of being logged, converted to plantations, abandoned, overrun by weeds, and suffering decades of neglect. Today, our team, a dozen strong, is getting its hands dirty trying to bring back the forests that once graced the land. Some are pitting with crowbars, one scatters organic manure on the freshly excavated moist soil. A few are removing invasive weeds like lantana, carefully retaining any native rainforest plant growing alongside. Others distribute saplings, or squat besides the pits planting, mulching, and tagging the plants with biodegradable flagging tape for later monitoring.
Hours later, we visit one of our older sites restored two decades earlier. Where previously deforested open land and smothering tangles of weeds sprawled, now diverse trees over 50 feet tall stand like columns. Some young trees are flush with clusters of bright red leaves, others sprout their first crops of fruit. The harsh chattering alarm call of a giant squirrel sounds from the canopy where a troop of dark Nilgiri langurs munches its way through the foliage — both species having returned to the site in the last few years as the rainforest reclaimed the land.
A million trees
Ecological restoration involves the careful planting of the right species in the right places in the right mix and right manner. Unfortunately, many large-scale tree planting programmes carried out today ignore each of these vital criteria even as they make headlines for having used hundreds or thousands of volunteers to plant lakhs or millions of saplings over hundreds of hectares, sometimes in a single hour or day.
A case in point is Telangana’s Haritha Haram programme that aims to plant 2.3 billion tree seedlings in four years. The programme also adopts the recent fad of lobbing seed balls (seeds embedded in balls of soil) across the State, one district vying for a record of 20 million. Telangana has a diverse range of natural ecosystems including grasslands, tree savannas, dry thorn forests, and deciduous forests, with hundreds of native plant species, from grasses and shrubs to trees. Yet, the official website of the project lists just a hundred tree species, including many invasive alien species such as Prosopis juliflora (mesquite), acacia wattles, casuarina, and ornamental trees. These species are not just inappropriate for Telangana, some are downright harmful. Yet, millions of seedlings are being planted and millions of seed balls tossed around, unmindful of whether the right species are being planted or even whether trees should be planted in that ecosystem at all.
Large-scale record-breaking tree planting makes news, not forests. Which explains why politicians, bureaucrats, and celebrities throng these events, while botanists, ecologists, and indigenous people are conspicuously absent. Besides failing to monitor or nurture the large numbers planted, such tree planting can cause more harm than good.
Across India, tree planting efforts suffer from five main problems: planting trees in the wrong places, planting the wrong species and species mix, planting too few species, failing to consider seed provenance, and planting without considering the rights of local people.
The most egregious harm comes when people plant trees in areas that do not naturally support many trees: open natural ecosystems (ONEs). India has a remarkable diversity of ONEs from the hot desert dunes of Jaisalmer to the cold desert steppes of Spiti and Ladakh; from the thorn scrub and savanna woodlands of the Deccan Plateau to the ravines of the Chambal; from the dry grasslands of Banni to the wet grasslands of Kaziranga; from the montane grasslands of the Western Ghats to the alpine meadows of the Himalayas. ONEs span about 3,29,000 sq.km. or 15% of India’s land area, according to a recent study by ATREE, a Bengaluru-based NGO, and maps by scientists M.D. Madhusudan, Abi Vanak, and Abhijeet Kulkarni.
These open natural ecosystems, mislabelled ‘wastelands’, are ecosystems in their own right, home to many specialised and endangered plants and animals. Two of India’s most endangered bird species — the great Indian bustard and Jerdon’s courser — are birds of open drylands. When tree plantations, including alien or introduced trees, smother open grassland and scrub, native plant and animal species decline and disappear.
Tree planting in ONEs can also affect local hydrology and reduce water availability. Native grasses and dryland plants are adapted to use little water in keeping with local rainfall patterns and infiltration, while helping recharge groundwater. But tree plantations in such areas can increase water uptake and transpiration, depleting the water table. For these reasons, open natural ecosystems deserve protection, including from tree planting. The ATREE study estimates that about 6,452 sq. km. or half the ONEs in Telangana could suffer from inappropriate tree planting. Across India, 51% of ONEs are similarly threatened.
Tree planting in forests can go wrong, too, as best seen in India’s flawed compensatory afforestation, where plantations are established ostensibly to compensate for forests destroyed for development projects. A November 2017 report by Community Forest Rights–Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a group working on forest rights issues, examined 2,479 compensatory afforestation plantations in 10 States listed in the Government’s E-Green Watch website, and found that 70% were on forest lands instead of non-forest lands. This signifies a double-loss: the original forest is wiped clear for built infrastructure, while double the area in a new ‘afforestation’ site is scoured by earthwork, trenches, and concrete structures, only to introduce alien and inappropriate trees neither native to the original destroyed forest nor to the ecosystem in the new location. In effect, three times the area of some of India’s most remarkable forests are being destroyed or disturbed at taxpayer expense in the name of compensatory afforestation.
Planting the wrong species and species mix is legion in tree planting programmes. The species planted are often alien, such as eucalyptus, mesquite, senna, and wattles, or include naturalised species such as gulmohar or neem. Even where planters claim to use native species, they are generic native species found widely elsewhere in India (such as amla, banyan, or jack) rather than those native to the ecosystem at the planting location.
Worse, the seeds or seedlings are not sourced from local ecosystems or appropriate seed zones, but randomly sourced and trucked in from whichever nursery or market happens to sell them. Only a few tree planting programmes take the required care to identify the correct natural ecosystem and vegetation and bother to ethically source seeds or raise seedlings in local, native plant nurseries.
In afforestation sites, State forest departments and implementing agencies also plant a pitifully small number of tree species, usually less than 10, often as few as two or three. One study found that more than half of the 2,35,000 ha afforested between 2015 and 2018 used ﬁve or fewer species. To take just one random example from 2015, to offset the diversion of 103 ha of forest land for the trans-Arunachal highway, the State planned compensatory afforestation in 310 ha of land in a village forest reserve. Both the original forest and the village reserve would have had hundreds of plant species, but the afforestation, according to details published online, planted five unnamed species at a cost of ₹28 lakh.
Tree planting programmes often fail to consider the roles and rights of local communities, enshrined in the landmark Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The CFR-LA report found that of 52 compensatory afforestation plantations in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, all were established on community forest lands vested in the village gram sabhas by the FRA, but all were carried out without gram sabha permission. Even during the pandemic in 2020, States such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha continued such afforestation on lands belonging to and used by indigenous people, excluding them by building fences and walls. Under rules framed by the present government in August 2018, the requirement for gram sabha consent has been done away with, violating local rights and compromising traditional land use, such as for fodder and grazing. Crucially, it also fails to empower communities as agents of restoration.
Meanwhile, destructive development projects are poised to destroy millions of native trees in some of our best forests. A science college in Dehradun set to fell over 25,000 trees, the Buxwaha diamond mine in Bundelkhand set to hack over 2.15 lakh trees, the Ken-Betwa river-linking project slated to destroy 23 lakh trees, the proposed trans-shipment terminal on Great Nicobar island that will kill untold millions in some of India’s most extraordinary forests, and the list goes on and on. Efforts to protect these existing trees in our forests could do a lot more good than misguided tree planting.
A rainforest returns
Back in the Anamalais, I mulled over our own small-scale tree planting for rainforest restoration. Over two decades, we had planted around 70,000 trees to restore about 100 ha of highly degraded rainforest, working hectare by hectare, chasing neither targets nor records, but aiming to bring back a semblance of the original rainforest ecosystem as best we could. Three local plantation companies, Parry Agro Industries, Tata Coffee, and Tea Estates India, had also stepped up to protect over 1,075 ha of existing rainforest patches within their tea and coffee estates.
Taken together, our work was an attempt to show that protecting remaining forests was the first priority and tree planting could be done and done well, when and where it was really needed. We hoped it would serve as a model of ecological restoration that would motivate others to plant ecosystems and not just trees. Ecological restoration of the appropriate ecosystem — whether grassland, desert, savanna, or rainforest — is preferable to blind tree planting.
For us, there was another salient reason to plant rainforest trees, year after year, decade after decade. If all went well, one day, a few decades hence, from the nearby rainforest patch, descendants of the troop of macaques would comb the canopy of the Cullenia, and future hornbills would whoosh onto the Myristica to feed on the fruits of the very trees we had planted.
Leonardo DiCaprio may have a lesson or two for India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change. The Hollywood actor, as protagonist of a 2015 Oscar-winning blockbuster, plays a character who is attacked, gravely wounded and left for dead, but who nevertheless recovers to live on as The Revenant of the film’s title. Now, imagine a Bollywood version: with an actor like Naseeruddin Shah in DiCaprio’s role, acting alongside co-stars like Ratna Pathak, Nandita Das, Rajkummar Rao and other talented artistes playing complex character roles. And imagine now that Shah plays a character who is beaten, mortally wounded and left for dead, but comes back to life. Except, in this Indian version, it is not the wounded and recovering Shah himself, but someone altogether different: say, a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar who returns with Kangana Ranaut in tow, both hero and heroine predictably hogging almost every scene. Would the latter character, co-stars and film still be a revenant representative and worthy of the original? Or would it just be a completely artificial replacement, bearing no resemblance to the original in appearance, artistry or talent?
India’s environment ministry appears to favour the latter form of transformation if we go by recent trends affecting India’s forests and other natural ecosystems. Take, for instance, the plans to bring so-called development to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N), which involve destruction of about 20,000 hectares of forest. The A&N forests are ecologically unique and rich in biodiversity, with a large number of species, many of which are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. To offset the kind of damage that will result from such projects, India has a system of compensatory afforestation that involves regrowing an equivalent area of forests in non-forest land or double the area in degraded forest land. The compensatory afforestation planned for A&N involves about Rs 1,480 crore to regrow forests in…wait for it…Madhya Pradesh!
Thus, biologically rich forests will be destroyed in a unique island ecosystem and a false replacement—probably using just two or three totally inappropriate species not native to either ecosystem—will be created over 2,000 km away in the middle of India in a totally different bio-climatic zone. Instead of the beautiful performances and uplifting music in the original movie, we will be treated to the usual tired masala and inevitable item number in the replacement.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of India’s compensatory afforestation programme, helmed by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA. The CAMPA programme is founded on the belief that natural forests and other ecosystems can be severely damaged or destroyed in one place and then regrown elsewhere using money shelled out by those implementing the destructive projects. In 2018, a fund of Rs 66,000 crore had accrued over the previous decade from payments for forest destruction in the belief that the destroyed forests can be ‘compensated’. In August 2018, the Central Government notified rules under the 2016 Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act to unlock these funds ostensibly for this purpose.
The compensatory afforestation law is now channeling a huge pot of money for afforestation through state bureaucracies and private parties and businesses. But it is a fatally flawed programme suffering from at least four major problems: planting trees in the wrong places (including grasslands, wetlands and deserts), planting the wrong tree species in forests, planting just one or a handful of tree species, and planting in lands of local and indigenous people without their consent and involvement. Almost all compensatory afforestation involves one to all of the above damaging practices.
Compensatory afforestation in principle and practice is regressive, but it is now a programme with deep pockets and a greatly enlarged potential for wreaking more damage to India’s forestlands and non-forest community lands and commons. It needs to be urgently replaced by an approach that recognises the importance of retaining all existing natural and undisturbed forests, protecting non-forest ecosystems such as deserts, grasslands and savannahs from ill-advised tree planting, and reviving the roles and rights of local communities and gram sabhas. Where forests have been already degraded or destroyed, there is a need to change focus from ‘afforestation’ to ‘ecological restoration’.
Ecological restoration has been defined as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. Key to this is the concept of (‘assisting’) natural processes of recovery rather than installing by brute force a replica or replacement ecosystem. It involves working with nature rather than against nature. Restoration involves bringing back the original ecosystem—not just forests, but also savannas, grasslands, wetlands or deserts. Restoration requires careful attention to landscape, the right species mix, and appropriate methods that minimise further disturbance, foster natural recovery, and employ ecologically informed interventions.
Ecological restoration fosters recovery of diverse species native to specific ecosystems by working with nature.
Restoration allows the recovery of species native to local ecosystems at a site-specific level, not forcible planting of saplings from some bundled list of species blindly applied to entire states or regions. It would also require stripping away the bureaucratic obsession with infrastructure creation and concretisation (check dams, trenches, waterholes and such), and replace it instead with minimising alterations to landscape and terrain to nurture a greater degree of naturalness. It mandates a close focus on natural vegetation types and how much of each type remains and in what condition, rather than on generic measures of green cover, forest cover, tree cover or density classes that is the present obsession of the forest bureaucracy. Finally, ecological restoration offers an opportunity to empower local communities and stakeholders as participants, because local people are far more knowledgeable and intimately connected to nature than the forest bureaucracy, external contractors or private sector plantations will ever be.
Still, the larger question remains: can an ecosystem such as a river or a forest—once damaged by destructive development, deforestation or pollution—be helped to recover to its original state or some reasonable approximation of it? Can the diverse set of native species, the unruly, wild character of the original ‘jungle’ or river or grassland be brought back? Contemporary research suggests this can happen only partially, and only when ecological restoration is carried out with a great deal of care and effort. And that is an additional reason to be far more cautious than we are at present with how we treat and manage the little that is left of India’s forests, rivers and other natural ecosystems.
The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.
Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river named for the rainforests, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on that far tree’s branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people—including Kadar forest dwellers—on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.
Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet black birds with golden leathery wattles on their heads frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.
Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails tipped with wires and black spatulae. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch the side of his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green. After his scratch, he sidles over to the nearest flower. Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendent hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns nosing and nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north now here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree top violinist fiddling fast and high pitched: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain around the tree. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep red cups, they even look like they are having a party.
It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say—a generosity hiding an agenda of its own. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about eighty to hundred anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.
Weeks later, by April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers—those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs—form oblong capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a ticking clock of the spinning earth.
My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.
It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to these trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a ‘togetherness of beings’.
At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.
On 8 March 2020, while the citizenship protests in New Delhi were ongoing, an edited version of this article appeared under a different title in the Indian ExpressSunday Eye.
Last year, it was for a billboard carrying an iPhone advertisement. Seventeen trees poisoned, thirteen more with branches chopped off, “so that a billboard of an iPhone advertisement is clearly visible”.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
Before they were felled, the trees stood along the streets of Bangalore, a city that goes by the name of Bengaluru these days. Bengaluru, capital of the state of Karnataka, a city of over twelve million people and the third most populous city in India, where nearly one percent of the nation’s 1.3-billion-large population is packed into 2,196 square kilometres at a density of 5,700 people to a square kilometre. Bangalore, the garden city, now become Bengaluru, city of traffic snarls, burning lakes, glitzy billboards.
The loss of trees is not new. Between 1973 and 2016, according to one study, the area under paved and concreted surfaces in the city increased over tenfold while vegetation or green spaces declined by nearly nine-tenths. With just around 1.5 million trees remaining, Bengaluru has only one tree for every seven people, although there are even fewer—one tree for every thousand people—in densely populated wards such as Shivaji Nagar and Kempapura Agrahara in the heart of the city. The trees are not enough even to sequester the carbon dioxide breathed out by the city’s citizens. In the run up to the 2018 state elections, in April alone, around forty trees were chopped in various parts of the city. Many more may have gone unnoticed, unreported.
The forces that swept away the trees are many: urbanization, suburban sprawl, road widening, paved parking lots, cement-smothered compounds, built infrastructure, and a warped aesthetic that prefers lawns to trees. And billboard advertising, which thrives on spectacle and grabbing attention, which tolerates nothing that curtails the human gaze.
Cutting trees to make billboards visible is not a new trend either. In 2014, in the heart of the city along the road named for Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence, 15 trees were axed for a better view of a hoarding, a billboard within a walled compound. It was a “ridiculous and mindless” act, driven by “unbridled greed”, reported one newspaper. It left behind “mutilated stumps, standing lifeless sentinels”.
When will it stop? When will it be the turn for the billboards to fall?
* * *
When the trees fell, citizens took to the streets in protest. In April, residents of the RR Nagar locality voiced their protest with placards:
Hug Me, 30 years I have been. Help me re-grow. Here silently cleaning your environment… Speak up for me… be my voice.
In May, at Bellandur and Iblur, other residents lamented that the trees that had been cut had been planted four years ago and were twelve feet tall. They protested on the street with placards declaring the values of trees. One held by a child said simply:
You cut a tree, you kill a life You save a tree, you save a life You plant a tree, you plant a life.
It was not just that growing trees had been cut. Lives had been planted: deliberate acts of nurture, looking to a future with promise, for a flourishing that was now no more. The anguish came not just from looking back at the loss of what had been, but from a sense of longing for what they could have become, for the lives never lived. It stemmed from a vision in which street trees are integral to life in the city of the future.
Gardeners are good at the business of waiting, they are in tune with the rhythms of the earth, which are slow. There is no anxiety in this kind of waiting, only anticipation.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
In response to the tree cutting, small groups of concerned citizens do what they can. They attempt to revive the hacked trees with the help of conservationists, tree doctors. They coat the stumps with a traditional concoction of coconut oil, Indian wormwood extract, and bees wax to prevent wood rot. They make collars around the roots to add a reviving panchagavya mixture to the soil. They wait and watch for the tree to sprout again.
And they fight. This year, when trees were cut for billboards, citizens lodged complaints with the authorities to pull the billboards down and take action against the advertising agencies. For the trees should not have been cut at all. The anti-corruption ombudsman of the state, the Karnataka Lokayukta, had declared in 2017:
No one will cause any damage to trees or any branches of trees. It is the duty of the forest wing of BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike or the Greater Bengaluru City Corporation] as well as BMTF [Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force] to take legal action with the assistance of jurisdictional police. If any ad agency or representative of such agencies cause any damage to the trees, BBMP is required to remove the hoardings [billboards] and cancel the permission/licence granted to such agencies.
The Lokayukta’s order clearly placing tree protection within the mandate of the BBMP and BMTF was welcomed by the city’s tree conservationists. Yet, there’s a long way to go. The BBMP presents on its website, under citizen services, only how to apply for and carry out tree cutting, not how to source seedlings of appropriate species from local nurseries, how to nurture and protect planted trees, or how to raise and pursue complaints when they are illegally felled. The BMTF’s online complaints portal, meant to register complaints for any destruction of government property, lists only “Property/Building/Site”—there is no mention of “Tree(s)”.
In June, I travel from the mountains of the Western Ghats to Bengaluru, with Divya Mudappa, my partner, arriving at Bengaluru’s international airport one afternoon. Among other things, we have come to work with Nirupa Rao, an artist and botanical illustrator based in Bengaluru, on a book about some remarkable trees of the Western Ghats—a book that we had dreamed up years ago but which had taken shape only over the last two years. Trees on our minds, we pass through the automated glass doors at the arrival exit that leaves me wondering how one can arrive and exit at once. Shouldn’t the door be labeled ‘EXIT’ on the outside for those going into the airport and ‘ENTRANCE’ on the inside for those arriving? The swanky airport holds many charms, no doubt, but it is just a building, an air-portal, ultimately it is this city, this place, we come to or leave.
At the airport curbside, a few trees give us pause. They are fig trees, a few metres tall, planted and growing in small, constrained spaces in the sweeping expanse of tiled floor under the airport’s high, curving, metallic roof. There’s a pair of Ficus benjamina or weeping fig with small shining leaves modestly hidden under a patina of dust. Three other trees, identified later by Sartaj Ghuman, another artist friend working on the book with us, are Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig whose leaves are shaped like lyres or the bouts of violins.
We leave the fig trees to their weeping and silent music and take a taxi from the airport, watch the airport’s gardens rush past. Lush lawns, colourful ornamentals, the airport’s retinue of tamed trees and palms transplanted by mechanical crane. Plants from as many countries, perhaps—befitting such an airport—as the airplanes arrive from. And yet, the native plants and trees of this destination, this landscape, this place, are scarce. The gardeners must have grubbed out any wild vegetation with their mechanical arms.
Along the highway leading out of the airport, exotic palm trees and bougainvillea bushes with pink and white flowers are packed tightly into the median. Further south, into the city, the median peters out into strips of straggly, dust-encrusted ornamental plants along and under mile upon mile of overhead roads, above which the airplanes fly into and out of the international airport or nearby airfields. Roads above roads, flyovers above flyovers. Against the highway’s flanks, billboards blaze by day and night, angled to catch every arriving, passing, or departing eye—some flaunt Government schemes with portraits of the Great Leader, others advertise homes and phones and the chattels of city life, wants and dreams and personal status. One billboard even advertises a block of apartments as a rainforest. And no trees block the view.
A clutch of monsoon clouds hangs in the rain-washed sky blue as a bird’s eye. The taxi driver is playing a Hindi film song on an FM channel on the car stereo. Soon, the song ends, a string of ads begins. The driver pushes the buttons, changing channels. Ads. More ads. He leaves it playing on a channel where the endless banality of chatter and ads is punctuated by music in constrained chunks. For some reason to do with traffic, the driver takes a short detour off the highway through Doddajala, ‘big lake’, a village being devoured by the city’s conurbation speeding north along the airport highway. It is pleasing to travel by a smaller road, with views—and time for views—of the landscape, even as we move faster than the vehicles creeping through highway traffic. Amid tessellated fields, houses, and shops crowding the road, stand neem, Eucalyptus, tamarind, jamun, and Ficus trees—over a wayside temple looms a great banyan, rooted in its place. Passing Doddajala, and back on the highway, Chikkajala, I see no lake big or small—I must have missed them or they have withered like the lakes around the airport or been built over like other lakes in the city.
It strikes me that this landscape would have looked very different in the past, a past that would have had no billboards, certainly, but also fewer buildings and even fewer trees.
* * *
When Bengaluru was founded in 1537 CE by Kempe Gowda of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhu dynasty, it was already in a landscape peopled for millennia. The city lay at the interface of the hilly malnad landscape to the south and west and the gentler, meadowed maidan terrain to the north and east. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book on the ecological history of Bengaluru, Nature in the City,
The landscape was shaped by its topography, with agricultural settlements irrigated by wells and lakes in the undulating terrain to the north and east, and pastoral communities in the dense scrub and jungle of the south and west.
Kempe Gowda expanded the city, creating the Kempambudhi and Dharmambudhi lakes, reinforcing the city’s fort and surrounding pete or markets with a mud wall and moat, bolstered by a ring of thorny shikakai climbers. Over the next two centuries the city continued to be transformed through the reigns of the Bijapur Sultanate, Hyder Ali, and his son Tipu Sultan, and the establishment of the British colonial administration at the end of the 18th century. As the city grew in population and expanded, slowly swallowing the surrounding villages, the string of rulers and administrators developed new lakes and markets and gardens and roads. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s ‘Cypress Gardens’ established in the eighteenth century, remains as the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in the city today.
Yet, in the eighteenth century, Bengaluru city was mostly treeless, embedded in a countryside that was open.
Bengaluru’s reputation as a garden city was not passively gained, it was actively cultivated: all sorts of people—from citizens to satraps—planted trees, nurtured gardens, and protected them to form the city’s tree cover and greenery. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book, multiple influences and aesthetics dictated the transition from open countryside to a city with tree-lined streets, parks, bungalow gardens, and lakes. The English colonial influence, certainly, but also those of earlier rulers, all built upon the abiding, deep, and old relationships that India’s peoples have always had with trees, viewing nature as a source of livelihood, as alive and sacred, at once.
Across Bengaluru, in groves and gardens tended with care to vacant lots running wild, from slums to sacred spaces thronging with people, trees stand testimony to those relationships. To the city’s northeast, in the Nallur grove, great, gnarled, aged tamarinds, two to over four centuries old, sprawl their branches amidst the ruins of an old fort. Near temples, alongside railway tracks and stations, and along congested and otherwise treeless city roads, there still stand massive banyan and peepal trees rising from raised platforms or kattes—platforms that serve as places for meetings, markets, shrines, or simply for resting in the shade, present in almost every town and village in the Karnataka countryside.
The neem and champak and jack will continue to reside in the city in the names of places—Margosa Road, Sampige Road, and Halasur (Ulsoor)—whether the trees remain in these places or disappear with more buildings, widened roads, or billboards. In their sample survey across 328 home gardens in the city, Harini Nagendra’s research team found people nurturing 91 tree species, from petite henna and spindly coconut to sprawling mango and jack that gave of their shade and sweetness through the summer. In the city’s crowded slums, where each family has just a few square metres of floor space to itself, people still made space for trees around their homes and in common areas where children played, people washed clothes and dishes or socialized with each other, and vendors set up stalls to sell tea and snacks, or flowers.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the city mushroomed, trees were planted by government authorities, too, chiefly the Forest Department or the Forest Cell of the BBMP. One forest officer, S. G. Neginhal, is credited with spearheading the planting of 1.5 million trees in Bengaluru in the 1980s, in areas like Indiranagar and Koramangala that are now expensive residential and commercial spaces embedded in the city. The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, enacted in 1976 and amended in subsequent years, created a framework for regulating the planting and felling of trees overseen by the appointed ‘Tree Officers’. Along sidewalks and parks, around government buildings and lakes, sprung up numerous trees that grace the city even today, both native species such as mango and neem and jamun, and exotic ones such as the Madagascan gulmohur, African tulip, Australian silver oak and Acacia wattles, and the Tabebuia, jacaranda, and mahogany of tropical America.
The trees waft coolness over surroundings baking in urban heat. In the afternoon, the ambient temperatures in tree shade are a good five degrees Centigrade cooler than over shadeless road, and 20 degrees cooler than the blistering tarmac. The value of shade itself is inestimable for people on foot or on two wheelers, street vendors and residents. The trees trap dust and freshen the air. They shelter birds and squirrels and monkeys and butterflies and bats, and provide fruits and flowers and firewood and fodder. They bring an uplifting aesthetic amidst glass and metal and tar and concrete. Rooted in place, they share their goodness as the world passes by.
Bengaluru once occupied a landscape with few trees. But without its trees, the city would be unimaginable today, and unlivable in the years ahead. The trees that remain stand, yet, as contingent markers of place, aesthetics, utility, and history.
* * *
Our book is nearly done. We had settled on the title, Pillars of Life, taken from an essay Divya had written years ago, when the book was still a seed of an idea in her mind. We tack on a subtitle, Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. The rest of the text is ready, the beautiful artwork—painstaking botanical illustrations by Nirupa and evocative sketches by Sartaj—has been digitally scanned and corrected for colours. An attractive layout has been chosen. Only the page for the dedication is blank, but Divya comes up with one that we instantly know is apt:
To the trees ~ the original landscape historians
In Bengaluru, street trees tell their own history of the city. Between our friend’s home in Judicial Layout where we are staying and Canara Bank Layout near Sahakara Nagar where our organisation, the Nature Conservation Foundation has its small office, the landscape around the University of Agricultural Sciences is a transformed one. From open and thinly populated a few decades ago, it is now a crowded suburb burgeoning with homes and apartments and shops, new ones cropping up every month. Along the roads, the trees that grow—pongam and mahogany, beach almond and kadam—are thick as a thigh to stout as a waist with canopies reaching only a few metres, dwarfed by the apartment buildings.
In older parts of Bengaluru, as in Malleswaram, Indira Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, and Halasur, and along wider roads, stand commensurately older trees: especially, rain trees of giant girth splaying their stout limbs over the roads, filtering out sunlight by day, letting in what starlight and moonlight they can through their folded leaves by night, obscuring even the multi-storey buildings that huddle along the roads.
One afternoon, I head downtown to M. G. Road and Church Street, in search of books, coffee, and trees. Named after Mahatma Gandhi, M. G. Road had few trees even in the past and is now a throbbing highway of concrete, tarmac, and traffic with overhead metro to boot. The few trees one can see are hidden on the northern side behind the metro, constrained within the bounds of the Cariappa Memorial Park.
At Church Street, I pause to consider my urban priorities: books first, coffee, or trees? Coffee, of course, at the Indian Coffee House, then trees, then books, then coffee again with books-in-hand. Easy.
The Indian Coffee House and Gangaram’s bookstore were old haunts of mine when they stood on M. G. Road, until both were forced to shut shop and move. Fortunately, the transplanted café and bookstore still survive in Church Street. The café retains its modest streetside ambiance, white-caparisoned waiters, and eclectic snacks. In price and flavour, its distinctive coffee, made from a strong decoction and served in plain white cups and saucers, beats the brews concocted in the swank café-turned-lounges with plush seats down the road. The Indian Coffee House’s existence remains tenuous, though, as its takeover by other café chains seems imminent. The Gangaram’s bookstore, too, survives with others down the same street: Bookworm, Blossom, and Goobe’s. I say survives, because two other famous Bengaluru bookstores that used to be nearby, the venerable Premier Book Shop and the Strand Book Stall, have already shut shop—their spaces swallowed by other commercial imperatives. Not transplanted. Axed, like the trees on M. G. Road in 2014 that stood in the view line of a billboard.
Opposite Blossom Book House in the compound of Falnir House—an old building standing like a marker of vanished time—stood large mango and jack trees. Along the street, a few trees spilled out of compounds and small spaces by the sidewalk: Araucaria, tamarind, peepal, and monkeypod. I stand under their branches in a light breeze for a while. The soft susurrus of tamarind leaves and the gentle patter of quaking peepal leaves against each other are barely audible in the noise of passing vehicles and the chugging of an electric generator at a construction site nearby. Further down, a cluster fig slants from the sidewalk near Coco Grove hotel and someone has parked a bicycle beside it. Opposite the Highgates Hotel stand peepal, false ashoka, camel’s foot, and rain tree, in which a pair of common mynas chuckles and a lone rose-ringed parakeet screeches. A bit further down, near Koshy’s looms a large mahogany, holding brown pods like arboreal eggs packed with seeds waiting with wings.
“You don’t have to stare at every single tree, you know?” Divya chides me as we drive back to Judicial Layout after she and a friend picked me up from Church Street as evening fell over the city.
I smile. I was obsessing over every tree. Teak trees covered in a creamy fuzz of inflorescences; Indian cork trees putting out bunches of white pendant blooms; the African tulip holding aloft clusters of large, crimson flowers. Trees with brush-strokes of colour in their leaves: the yellowing leaves of pongam and jack, the moon flash below silver oak leaves in the wind, the senescent leaves of beach almond in scarlet and burnt umber falling, returning to the earth. And the roadside Markhamia whose branches held long, twisted hanging pods and sprigs of yellow flowers like little trumpets playing a music now drowned by traffic noise; the Tabebuia flowers bunched in soft pink against dark green leaves forming a contrasting backdrop to the metallic colours of the vehicles strung along the highway; the wayward fig trees stretching their trunks and limbs out over the road through gaps left considerately in compound walls; the fruit-laden Jamaican cherry trees that flicker with flowerpeckers by day, bustle with bats by night. And every standing, swaying, sighing neem and mango and whatnot. I really didn’t need to stare at every tree.
Yet, what if the next time I came to the city that tree wasn’t there?
* * *
The city is changing. Fast. Harini Nagendra writes:
In the twenty-first century, the city has entered a technologically driven era where topography is subservient to real estate. Across the city, marshy wetlands are filled and granite hillocks are razed to the ground for construction. …The clearing of trees and desiccation of lakes has impacted the microclimate of the city, leading to urban heat islands that trap heat and exacerbate pollution. Bengaluru’s survival and resilience in the decades to come will depend on the future of nature in diverse spaces of the city.
Narrow roads, usually in congested residential neighborhoods, have fewer trees, smaller sized tree species, and a lower species diversity compared to wide roads. Since wide roads are being felled of trees across the city for road widening, this implies that Bangalore’s street tree population is being selectively denuded of its largest trees. Older trees have a more diverse distribution with several large sized species, while young trees come from a less diverse species set, largely dominated by small statured species with narrow canopies, which have a lower capacity to absorb atmospheric pollutants, mitigate urban heat island effects, stabilize soil, prevent ground water runoff, and sequester carbon. This has serious implications for the city’s environmental and ecological health.
Although the city boasts of 1,200 neighbourhood parks today, they occupy less than 0.1% of the city’s area, and many are gated with restricted access, depriving sections of the community that need them most. Of the wooded groves and urban commons, the gunda thopes, that were once scattered about the city, most have disappeared, too. It is only along roads that many people have daily, public access to trees, but tree cutting isn’t sparing them either.
Bengaluru’s citizens are not taking all this sitting down. Groups organise and lead campaigns to protect trees. They hold festivals to celebrate trees. They try to map trees in the city. And they protest. In 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets to oppose a state government project to build a six-lane, 6.72 km long, steel flyover in the city at a cost of around Rs 1,800 crores or 18 million rupees. The project, touted as one that would improve connectivity to the airport, would have entailed the cutting of 812 trees according to the proposal, although field survey by citizens showed 2,244 trees would face the chainsaw. Facing sustained protests by thousands of citizens on the streets, an online petition signed by 35,000 people, over 100,000 missed calls made to a designated number, written petitions to bureaucrats and administrators, and a string of critical media reports, the government scrapped the project in 2017.
Bengaluru was not alone. In June 2018, more than 1,500 people in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, poured into the streets to protest a planned cutting of over 14,000 trees for a housing redevelopment project. Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, who was to write the foreword to our book, was caught up in the protests that erupted and wrote to us saying he could only send the foreword later. After citizens approached the Delhi High Court and the National Green Tribunal, both courts stayed the felling of trees, although the former has since modified its order to restrict tree felling in only seven redevelopment projects. Citizen petitions to the Central Information Commission, under India’s Right to Information Act, wrested disclosures by the State Government on its website, placing on record the number of trees already cut or slated to be cut by builders, contractors, and state agencies. For a city suffering the worst air quality of any major city in the world, the figures are sobering. Between 2005 and 2017, over 112,000 trees had been cut in Delhi, mostly for the Metro, roads, and other construction projects. One tree cut, for every hour of day or night, for thirteen years. And that’s just the official record.
These urban victories secured from the courts signify a surging public awareness on the values of trees in cities. They also serve as a synecdoche for a new environmentalism: one that melds the personal actions of individuals, the community efforts of groups, and the political activism of an empowered citizenry. The gardener planting a tree by slum-home or apartment-block or watering sidewalk trees demonstrates individual commitment. The communities, from apartment residents associations to civil society organisations, which lead street protests, petitions, and activist campaigns, signal the strength of the collective. And the coming together of individuals and groups to trigger political action—upholding the tenets of law, seeking justice from the courts, and demanding accountability and transparency from the government—heralds what an informed and empowered citizenry can achieve. The motivational roots of individual and community efforts toward nature conservation extend back into India’s old traditions and examples abound from India’s forests and rural areas. It is in their manner of joining forces and their form of political engagement that one sees a glimpse of something new. A contemporary and effective environmentalism that can be inclusive and diverse, aspirational and inspiring, that builds and deepens connections from person to person, people to place, and humans to the rest of nature even in the midst of our most crowded cities.
For as long as they are alive, trees remain where they are. This is one of life’s few certainties. The roots of trees go deep and take many directions, we cannot foresee their subterranean spread any more than we can predict how a child will grow. Beneath the earth, trees live their secret lives, at times going deeper into the ground than up into the sky, entwined below with other trees which appear in no way connected above the ground.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
Bengaluru’s billboards case is, however, still in court.
* * *
I think that I shall never see A billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933 (in ‘The Face is Familiar’, 1941)
The billboards are falling. It is early September and Bengaluru is transformed. Back again for a conference, I can hardly believe my eyes. I am astonished at the hundreds of empty metal frames and structures along roads and highways, each of which earlier had garish vinyl flex advertisements stretched across them. Once again, the courts had stepped in.
At the ‘Nature in Focus’ conference, a gathering of nature photographers, filmmakers, and conservationists, Divya and Nirupa have a session on our book Pillars of Life that was published in July. Nirupa speaks about what it took for her to depict the beautiful rainforest trees—botanical illustrations made with accuracy, blending science and art, detailing bark and branch and every leaf. Later, participants compliment us on the artistic work, on the evocative yet brief text. Their kind words are gratifying, yet we hope the book will evoke greater appreciation and wonder towards grand trees, whether they stand by roadsides or in rainforest fragments, along city streets or winding hill roads. The conference photo exhibition showcases dozens of spectacular images, yet trees, if they appear at all, are only backdrops to animal portraits or lost in landscapes. Nirupa took up to a week to paint a single tree, but the trees themselves took a century or more to draw themselves from earth to sky: isn’t every tree a piece of art, too?
Will the billboards rise again like earlier, or will citizens reclaim the city and its trees for themselves? And yet, ads are still omnipresent. Spanning the cover pages of newspapers, filling radio and TV channels, crowding the pages of magazines, blipping into our phones, squirming into our email inboxes, flashing on our browsers, plastered across airports and railway stations and bus stands, and occupying place after public place where they have no business to be. With the fall of the billboards, perhaps the day will come, too, when all commercial advertisements will be constrained within print and online catalogues, shopping malls and complexes, yellow pages and directories, where people who need them can find them and they don’t arrive unannounced and unsolicited to stare you in the face.
With the vinyl flex gone or hanging in shreds, Bengaluru’s billboards frame views of buildings and trees and open skies. Flyovers of pelican and cormorant flocks in formation sweep through the sky to nearby lakes. As black kites and crows perch on the billboards’ metal bars, clouds drift through the billboards, as do mynas and sparrows and parakeets flying to the trees behind. Now, rain trees and eucalypts, mango and jack, shades of lime and jade and emerald, flicker into view. A few branches even poke their way through the emptiness of the billboard.
As the billboards fall, the people and the trees rise into the world and open their arms.