Bin the TenderSURE, plant more trees, says forest official who greened Bengaluru

S R Neginhal, the pioneer of urban forestry who was tasked with greening Bengaluru once and did it successfully, talks about Bengaluru's green cover and the way forward.

Your first impression of Sethuram Gopal Rao Neginhal is that of a benevolent grandfather – soft spoken and quiet. But don’t let the charming smile fool you from discovering the steely resolve that saw this man pioneer the concept of Urban Forestry in the country.

Considered something of a legend in the department, Neginhal is known to have chastised officers for erroneous decisions even after his retirement – and was welcomed for it. Even as the world finds new names for greening the planet, a quick conversation with the elderly man lets you know that it has all been done before. We have just forgotten our lessons from history.

The 87-year-old former deputy conservator of forests is credited with many a firsts – inclusion of Bandipur in the list of tiger reserves, authoring the first ever management plan for a tiger reserve among others. But he is most famous for his unrivaled efforts in making Bengaluru green, which is why the city still enjoys some bit of shade in the central parts of the city.

We sat down for a conversation with the man to discuss urban greenery policy, where Bengaluru went wrong with protecting its green and what are the lessons that can be learnt from history to revive the tree cover. Excerpts from the interview:

What was your first memory of your connect with nature?

My family came from the Hubli- Dharwad City where I was raised and educated. However, since my father was a range officer with the British Government and trained in Dehradun in the early 1900s, we spent a lot of time in places like Dandeli etc after he was posted. But I don’t think I can specify a particular moment or memory. Because, unlike these times we didn’t have to go looking for forests and greenery. I joined the forest services in 1951 because of circumstances in my family before I could finish my B Sc. If I had finished my graduation, I may have gone on to join a more prestigious department at a better position. But I have never regretted my decision of joining the forest department and the work that it allowed me to do.

You are considered a pioneer of Urban Forestry, popularising the concept even before it defined. Can you take us back to the beginning?

I was brought to Bangalore during Mr Gundu Rao’s government in 1981 from Thirthahalli. I had moved back to the forests after a stint at Mysore where I was in charge of the Mysore zoo. The challenges were similar to what we see today. Bangalore was losing a lot of green cover to accommodate the growing city and the new layouts. At that point of time, RT Nagar, Koramangala, JP Nagar, Mahalakshmi Layout Vijayanagar, Vyalikaval (which has very narrow lanes) were being developed and a number of trees had been cut down for this. The BDA had just come up and the BMP was largely in charge of the city.

However, when the CM brought up the issue of greening the city, the officers in both these departments gave him very unsatisfactory figures on how many trees they could plant. If my memory serves me right, the BDA had said they could plant about 4000 trees a year and the BMP had claimed about 2000 trees. That would get the city nowhere and the CM knew it. So he spoke to the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Shyam Sundar, who said the department could plant more than lakh saplings every year. The government gave the go ahead and I was brought in to implement it.

S R Neginhal. Pic: Manasi Paresh Kumar

As you mentioned, the challenges were similar to what we face today. The growing demands of an exploding city is placing enormous demands on the environment. What were your first steps when you took over?

The first thing I did when I came to Bangalore was to travel around the city to understand the ground reality. The BDA and the BMP who were planting trees then had a flawed science. Their saplings were less than 2 feet tall. I carried a measuring tape around with me to measure how tall they were. The saplings were also surrounded with a concrete fence that did not allow for water to percolate to the roots. So the rate of survival would come down drastically. Because Bangalore was a city, it was home to the Holstein breed of cattle as opposed to the local jersey cows which roamed around and ate these saplings. Also the concrete fencing/drums also cost a lot. Imagine paying about Rs 600 for each of them in the 80s! It just made no sense. It took me almost a year to get this done but it was worth the time and effort because without understanding where we were going wrong, we couldn’t have put the right system in place.

So how did you change this?

The first order of business was to change the science of planting. We couldn’t use younger and shorter saplings in the city because they would not survive. I started to plant six feet tall saplings which had a better chance of survival. The planting of these trees was largely done during the night, and people would wake up to find a nice green lane in front of their homes and work place! Today I hear it is common to cut down fully grown trees in the middle of the night! (he chuckles at the irony). We especially did midnight drives in Majestic and the surrounding areas. The height of these saplings meant that the cattle could not reach them, so that took out one problem.

The concrete drums were replaced by the bamboo poles that were covered with chicken mesh that allowed the plant to grow without hindrance and also cost less. They were about Rs 22 as opposed to the Rs 600 that the concrete drums cost. I used a mixed approach for the species selection combining the native rain trees with exotic species like the Gulmohar to allow for a more diverse ecosystem..

Now most would argue that Gulmohar is a native tree. But it is a localised species and not a local one which is the case with some of the species that I chose for the city. I chose flowering trees as opposed to fruit-bearing trees because the minute there are fruit bearing trees, people will climb up the trees (especially the young boys) throw stones to get the fruits. That will only hurt the tree. I still argue fruit-bearing trees in a city is never advisable.

I also started tree banks in the city where people could come get these saplings for a nominal rate. But the one initiative that really helped with the success of the tree planting was the sense of community ownership I managed to build. I got people to plant trees in their surroundings, so they’d protect them better. The concept of tree wardens was introduced by me so there was a sense of ownership among the people. And the people of the city cared about what happened to their trees.

So how did Bangalore get to this point of loss of its green cover?

Before we start to predict doomsday, let’s do the math. The BMRCL project is estimated to have cost us about 18,000 lost trees. We have to talk in estimates because in this field nobody can give you exact figures. About 17,000 to road widening. So that would be about 30,000 trees are from the original 1.5 million trees that were planted by me. Lets double that number to err on the side of caution. That would still be only lakh trees. Now minus that from 1.5 million trees that were originally planted. We still have a substantial green cover of trees over the age of 50 years with a girth of 4 meters. When I step out today, sometimes I wonder how I could plant so many trees and how so many of them have managed to survive (chuckles) But the point is you need to preserve them and protect them and replace them.

I was given to understand that the rain trees have been completely removed from the species that are planted in the city today. How can you do that? It is the only local species that gives you unparalleled green canopy. This is what happens when you hand over the responsibility of urban green cover to development agencies like the BDA and the BBMP. It is mid monsoon already. I haven’t seen any planting drive happening yet. When do they want to do it?

But the BBMP has officers from the forest department which staff the forest cell…

And what is their job? Do they do it? They are under such pressure from politicians, timber lobby and even the citizens.

So how do you expect them to do their job?

It wasn’t that we had it easy. During my tenure, an officer from the National Highways wanted to chop down trees for one of their projects and we had refused permission, asking more explanation. He arrogantly wanted to go ahead and was threatening my junior officer because he belonged to the Central cadre. I had an arrest warrant issued against him. I even took on a senior police officer who wanted a tree gone in his jurisdiction, because he argued it obstructed traffic. The man didn’t realise it was where his traffic constables stood under for its shade as they directed traffic! The then-chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde had to step in and write a letter to stop it. We have the law and policy on our side. We need to have the will to implement it.

But one of the advantages you had was amount of land that was available for planting trees which is a concern today. How do we work around this constraint?

Let’s be very clear. Development is not going to stop. It will always take precedence in an urban setting. But the problem is not the constraint of space. The problem is the engineers we have. None of them are taught the importance of protecting our environment. All they see or want to see are straight roads. They come up with bizzare ideas like metal roads, have concrete all the way till the base of a tree trunk, road widening projects do not even account for the loss of green cover. Can the trees be saved? Can they be used as road dividers? These are questions they don’t want to ask themselves.

And then there are projects like TenderSURE! They need to put that in the bin as soon as possible. Where is the space for trees in that project? You have utility ducts running in either side of the roads, so you argue there will be no place for the trees. Why can’t you have them in the middle of the road under the divider so you don’t have dig up road and create a problem for the traffic? Stop taking months to finish a project. Plan and coordinate better among the departments so you don’t dig the same stretch ten times in two months.  How can you claim to design a pedestrian-friendly project without the shade of trees in a tropical country? Who is going to walk in the heat? Bangalore doesn’t have the same weather it did in the 80s or even the 90s. This is common sense. You don’t need to be a forest officer for it.

But land has become a constraint for greening of the city…

You cannot substitute living. You need to breathe. That won’t change. Stop reducing open spaces during the planning of new city layouts or you will end with a very unhealthy and sick generation. But if the government is not doing it, the citizens need to do it.

The Miyawaki Method of creating green patches has been extremely effective even in smaller spaces in an urban setting. What is your take on it?

But we have already done it in Bangalore. Please look at spaces in BEML, BHEL where clusters of trees were planted and continue to thrive. We just didn’t have a name for it. I don’t entirely agree with the theory of just indigenous trees that it propagates, because I have followed the mixed species method myself. But any method that allows for an increase in green cover will always get my vote.

Left: A view of greenery in front of General Post Office, Bengaluru, file photo taken in 2009 (Pic: Shree D N). Right: Google map view of the same place as of June 2018.

The Green Belt that once lined Bangalore outside the periphery of the Outer Ring Road is lost today to accommodate a growing city. It was extremely important for the ecosystem of the our city and regulate the temperature. How do you see this reversing because the land is not available?

When you travel by train to Bangalore from the West of Karnataka, you start to enjoy a breeze that is familiar to Bangaloreans almost from Arasikere. The problem is that we don’t understand that an ecosystem doesn’t confine to city boundaries. If the green belt around the Outer Ring Road is gone, plant trees further of it in surrounding villages. Science will tell you that the city will reap its benefits too. The point is you need to want to do it.

Does the current state of Bangalore hurt you, given your contribution to the city? What do you have to say about reports that claim Bangalore will be dead in a few years?

Bangalore is not going to die. I don’t agree with that. We have problems. I don’t deny it. But they are not insurmountable. What we need a strong green policy for protecting our life. And the political will to make it happen. Make no mistake. You can’t live without a tree. You cannot substitute clean air and water and you need a tree to make both of it happen.

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