When Chennai trees come crashing down: The gaps in care and maintenance

Chennai trees suffer from lack of proper maintenance and regular pruning. Field workers often complain of the lack of adequate equipment.

Chennai’s tree cover has taken a hit especially since cyclone Vardah hit the city. The trees that survived continue to face existential threats in the form of weather events, felling and  improper maintenance. Not only is this a cause for concern in terms of the environmental impact on the city but also a threat to the safety of citizens. While the planting of new trees is a welcome initiative, the existing mature trees across the city must also be cared for better. 

Caring for Chennai’s trees

Pruning of low lying branches of Chennai’s avenue trees in residential neighbourhoods has to be monitored closely by the senior officials within the Greater Chennai Corporation. There are several trees across Chennai which have not been pruned for years or may be even decades. These trees, which haven’t been pruned well in time, tend to break or get uprooted, especially during the monsoon when they are unable to take the load of the water and the wind. Pruning should be done before the monsoon, just like de-silting of the stormwater drains. 

The need for this action was underlined in particular by the goings on in my neighbourhood over the last few weeks. The residents in my locality lodged complaints regarding low lying branches of avenue trees in Patel Road, Srinivasan Street & Thiruvengadam Street and got them pruned. This was done after three avenue trees in our neighbourhood broke following the wind and rain fury in the wee hours of August 30th. The branches of the trees which had not been pruned in a long time were unable to bear the weight when battered by a spell of rain.

Chennai tree fall
Fallen trees covered the roads in the aftermath of rain. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani

Read more: Panel proposes practical and scientific ways to green Chennai

Pleas for pruning

When the residents saw the impact of the rain on these trees, we realised the danger posed by unpruned old avenue trees. We lodged a complaint through the 1913 helpline the moment we noticed a few branches were falling apart. One of the residents in the neighbourhood spoke to the officials overseeing the parks in the area and was informed that the work would be carried out later as it was a holiday on account of Gokulashtami festival.

Meanwhile some large broken branches were dangling in mid air for over two hours and were later entangled in the broadband cables criss crossing our street. We were very concerned about the safety of the commuters who continued to drive below the trees. As our suggestions and warnings calling for immediate action fell on deaf ears, we did not have a choice but to wait and keep watch.

At one stage the entire set of broken branches supporting each other collapsed. A commuter on a two wheeler miraculously escaped a fatal accident by a fraction of a second. We had in the meantime escalated the matter to the higher officials within the Greater Chennai Corporation with the hope that someone would intervene sooner rather than later. 

The local Assistant Engineer sent us the contact details of the Park Overseer and we got in touch with him immediately and relayed the dangers posed by the dangling branches. After a while two private contract workers arrived at the spot and managed to clear the debris.

The danger persists

A repeat of this took place on September 3rd as another huge branch of a neem tree broke and fell right in the middle of the road. After lodging complaints and escalating the same to the higher officials, we have managed to get it cleared.

Despite these incidents, there are still a number of branches in the trees which have dried up and will most likely fall in the coming days or weeks. When we sought the help from the Park Overseer and his team, we were told that their pruners were not long enough to cut these branches. A pruning machine on wheels was provided by the GCC and was in use until a few months ago and we were left wondering why it is not being used effectively.

tree fall chennai
The fallen branches were cleared after petitions and follow up. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani

The ordeal did not end there as we had to follow up with the local officials to clear the pruned trees and debris piles strewn across our neighborhoods for several weeks. After several petitions, an open truck with  9 to 10 conservancy workers pulled up at the location and managed to clear one load of debris with some more remaining. The conservancy inspector at the location has promised to clear the rest of the debris piles strewn all over the street in some time. 

Read more: Tree survey in Chennai helps citizens take care of neighbourhood green cover

What ails Chennai’s trees

We would like to know why the residents have to lodge a complaint every time a tree has to be pruned.  The additional costs incurred are also borne by the residents who lodge the complaint. We are forced to pay a tip to the workers every time we lodge a petition to get the work completed. Over and above this we are asked to go and buy petrol or diesel for the chainsaw. 

If the workers are going out of the way to prune trees located within private properties such as apartments and other complexes, they are justified in charging a sum to complete the work. But pruning of trees on the streets is a matter of routine maintenance work that must be carried out by the Greater Chennai Corporation.

During our conversation with the field workers we were told they do not get regular supply of pruning and cutting equipment, petrol, diesel etc. When we contact the local conservancy team seeking their help to clear the trees and debris, we are told there is a shortage of Open Trucks and Bob Carts. This raises a serious question over the use of taxpayer funds. The absence of necessary material prevents workers from efficiently carrying out maintenance tasks. This in turn poses a serious threat to residents and passers by when branches and whole trees are broken or uprooted during the rains. 

While the debris clearing drive and cleanup of waste by the Corporation has earned it kudos, it is important to highlight such systemic issues that prevent the civic body from proper maintenance of avenue trees. Chennai’s trees are vital life blood for any neighbourhood but the lack of care could easily turn them into safety hazards for all overnight.

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  1. T. Mahesh says:

    The article, ‘ here’s what you must know before planting a tree in Chennai ‘ was interesting. The entire article about Chennai’s tree cover by itself was very well written. If only the names of species of trees suitable and not suitable were accompanied by their original names in vernacular ( Tamil ) , the job would have been perfect and really proved useful to those who are not acquainted with a foreign language. We people are more familiar with the language spoken in the homeland, after all.

  2. Raghukumar Choodamani says:

    Subsequent to this article being published, the tree pruning machine on wheels which was missing in action has resurfaced and was parked in BB Road, Ward 44, Perambur.

    This morning I also got to see trees being pruned in Paddy Field Road in Ward 70.

    Glad the local officials are taking our concerns seriously and addressing the same.

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