How to enhance green cover in Chennai — this is a question being mulled over for decades now. But despite various attempts in that direction over the past two decades, the conversation around greening Chennai really gained momentum only after Cyclone Vardah uprooted thousands of trees in December 2016.
Organisations working on biodiversity conservation initiated research projects on the city’s shrinking greenery, the number of tree plantation drives rose sharply and nodal agencies of tree management in the city were seen teaming up with organisations and individuals to find effective solutions.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a huge disconnect between citizens and Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) when it comes to tree management in Chennai. Adding to that is the lack of knowledge on the subject.
What variety of trees are suitable for the city, given Chennai’s climate?
Why is maintaining trees given less importance than planting them?
How can GCC and citizens work together to promote green cover in Chennai?
In a web panel conducted by Citizen Matters Chennai last Friday, experts and interested citizens came together to discuss strategies to improve the green cover in the city. T D Babu, trustee of Nizhal; R Ramalingam, a civic activist from Ambattur; Krishna Kumar Suresh; founder-CEO of Thuvakkam; V Bhuvaneshwaran, Executive Engineer, Parks Department, GCC; Muthu Karthick, Team leader (Research), Care Earth Trust and Meera Ravikumar, member, Swachh Gandhi Nagar provided various perspectives on tree plantation and protection.
What threatens our trees?
Apart from trees ravaged by natural calamities, there have been several disturbing instances of wanton tree felling in Chennai. In the name of road expansion or monsoon preparedness, government departments including the GCC, highways department and Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) chop down age-old trees in the city.
Individuals are also to blame. In the commercial streets of Pondy Bazaar and Nungambakkam, traders chop down trees citing aesthetic reasons. Citizens also uproot trees in private properties in the name of vastu — an act that goes unquestioned. Many trees are felled to pave way for construction activities in Chennai.
On the other hand, tree plantation drives in the city are not consistent or uniformly distributed, data suggests. According to data from the Care Earth Trust, Adyar zone has 30% of Chennai’s greenery, followed by Teynampet and Anna Nagar. “There are fewer parks and public spaces in North Chennai,” said Muthu Karthick of Care Earth Trust. Care Earth provides scientific services in the area of biodiversity by assessing the human impact on the environment, strategic planning and implementing training and capacity-building initiatives in the area of biodiversity conservation.
Activists or concerned individuals face multiple challenges in nurturing trees. “Saplings near the construction sites have a poor rate of survival. Bricks or sand are dumped on the saplings killing them,” said Meera Ravikumar. The absence of a strong legislation to protect trees and to penalise offenders is a disadvantage for Chennai.
Read more: Chennai needs a law to save its green lungs
How to green Chennai’s landscape?
A number of pointers came up during the 90-minute discussion, which could be followed to ensure more lung space for Chennaiites.
Awareness: Knowing more about trees is the first and foremost step to be taken towards tree conservation. “ Chennai represents all the five landscapes – Kurinji, Mullai, Pālai, Neythal and Marutham. Unless we understand the city’s landscape, we might not plant the right species at the right place in the right season,” said T D Babu of Nizhal, a trust that engages in greening activities and works to promote concern for trees in the city. Quoting an example from Chamiers Road, Babu said, “GCC has planted Banyan trees on this road, which is less than 100 feet wide. It is a wrong move as a Banyan tree spreads to acres.”
Community involvement: The parks department of GCC which is the nodal agency of tree plantation in Chennai should team up with the Resident Welfare Associations and other enthusiastic individuals for the urban afforestation drives. “If not for the power of volunteerism, Nizhal could not have converted a 4.5-acre dumpyard into a tree park at Kotturpuram,” Babu mentioned.
Start with fenced spaces: There has certainly been a spike in the number of individuals and organisations showing interest in tree plantation in the city. However, due to a host of reasons such as lack of awareness or budget crunch or a mere callousness, the interest in planting trees doesn’t extend to maintaining them.
“The risk factor is high when you plant a tree in a public space. They should have guards, be pruned and watered regularly,” said R Ramalingam of Ambattur Pasumai Karangal, an organisation that aims to increase greenery in the city by planting saplings in government buildings.
Considering these factors, it is advisable to plant trees in fenced properties such as government schools. Students should be motivated to nurture them, he added. Burial grounds and metro water pumping stations are other conducive spaces for tree plantation.
Leaning on smart solutions: A diversion from conventional tree plantation, Miyawaki forests are slowly emerging as a solution to improve greenery in concrete jungles such as Chennai. In collaboration with GCC, Thuvakkam has created 20 Miyawaki forests in the city in the past two years.
“Individuals can turn to this method of tree plantation as it requires very less space. We can plant 10,000 trees in a 2-acre-land,” said Krishna Kumar Suresh of Thuvakkam, an organisation that works in the niche of environment, education and other such causes.
Greening urban spaces: Chennai has 702 parks, 99 center medians, 99 traffic islands and 163 roadside parks, under the maintenance of GCC. GCC has recently relaxed the norms to adopt the urban spaces. “Individuals or organisations can now adopt an urban space with zero deposit. Besides that, GCC will be utilising the OSR lands to improve greenery,” said Bhuvaneswaran.
A strong legislation: States such as Maharashtra brought out laws to protect trees. “Tamil Nadu doesn’t have a tree act. A draft was submitted to the former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, many years ago. Unfortunately, it has not been enforced yet,” said Babu. We should also have ward-level tree committees with representation from public and government departments, Babu added.
Where to complain?
If you notice a tree being damaged or felled in a public property, call GCC’s helpline: 1913