Another World Environment Day has passed, and people were out planting saplings. On a similar occasion, over three decades ago, the seed for a green Bengaluru was sown.
"It was during the Vanamahotsava celebrations in 1982," says former Forest Department officer S G Neginhal, credited for lining the city's avenues with about 15 lakh trees in five years. "It's usually celebrated around Gandhi Jayanti, when dignitaries plant saplings and water them."
This was often the token gesture it still is, he says. But Chief Minister Gundu Rao was perplexed by the city's rising temperature. "Again like it is now," says the 87-year old, with a chuckle.
"So during his speech, he asked a question of the heads of various civic bodies and government departments present: 'How many trees can you plant a year?'"
While the other chiefs committed to thousands, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Shyam Sunder said he could up the number to lakhs provided he had a dedicated team, says Neginhal. To oversee this, the forest officer, then in his fifties, was transferred to the city from Tirthahalli.
Neginhal, who had been sent for advanced training by the department and pushed to get Bandipur on India's tiger reserve list, started preparations right away. "We had six months to kick off the drive," he says.
Having closely observed trees in other parts of the state he was posted in, he noticed that not many saplings the BDA planted survived.
"They were between 1 and 1.5 feet, and were eaten up by cows," he says.
And so he went around the city measuring the height of cows. "With their heads up, I they could reach up to 6 feet," he says. "So the saplings we planted had to be higher."
The alternative was to use tree guards, and the ones in use then were concrete ones that cost more than `600 a piece, he says. "So I designed one with four eucalyptus poles with chicken mesh wrapped around it," he explains. This cost `23.
Meanwhile, in the department's nurseries, lakhs of saplings were being nurtured, mostly between 6 and 16 ft. "We involved the public, found out what trees they wanted, appointed about 350 from different walks of life as tree wardens," he says.
Thus, trees sprung up on the streets of every locality — Basaveshwaranagar, where he lives now, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Mahalakshmipuram, Koramangala and Indiranagar to name a few. Flowering trees like jacaranda and gulmohar found a place with Indian varieties like honge, neem and champak.
A couple of years on, he observed that Majestic and its surroundings were still bare. "When I brought this up with my team, they said it was impossible to plant trees along the stretch as it was busy up to 2 am," he recalls.
Until then the 16-foot saplings grown in sturdier containers had not seen the outside of the nurseries. "We had about a thousand, just in case."
He ordered a truck full of these, and a water tanker to be taken to Gandhinagar. "My team, the workers and I waited there past 2 am, and got to work," he says. At daybreak, when people started coming out, they rubbed their eyes, puzzled about how these half-grown trees had sprung up overnight.
The author of four books on wildlife and trees claims that even all the trees lost to road widening and the Metro doesn't cross 10 per cent of what was planted in the 1980s.
What of the municipal corporation's decision to axe the soft wood trees it says are in danger of falling? "So many electric poles fall in the rains, and they have been installed firmly in concrete. Yet we only focus on the count of fallen trees."
"We don't know how to take care of the trees, so how can we blame them?" he asks.
Whenever someone wants a tree cut down, the tree officer should go to the spot, he says. "Only if tree surgery or pruning cannot do the job, should the department agree to let it be felled."
And if this becomes necessary, a tall sapling should be planted for every grown tree cut, he holds.
Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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