In History lessons in the primary school we were told about the penchant of the Afghan King Sher Shah Suri for improving the then-existing administrative set-up. An ethnic Afghan, born in Hissar in Punjab, he took control of the Mogul Empire in 1540 and established the Sur Dynasty after overrunning Bengal. Being far away from the centre of action which used to be Delhi, he was obsessed with better communication with it. He, therefore, organised a postal service and, in order to make it effective, we were told, he built the Grand Trunk Road. What is more important for our purpose is that while building the road Sher Shah spared a thought for the road-users, which included his postal couriers. For their benefit he had plenty of shady trees planted on the road sides under which the tired long-distance travellers could rest and relax and take the strain off their aching feet.
The history of roadside trees in India is that old, if not older. One supposes, even in earlier times paths used to be laid for the sake of establishing connectivity and trees would be planted along them for the benefit of man and animals. This has been the tradition right down to modern times. Emperor Akbar ordered that all avenues and arterial roads be covered with the graceful sheesham tree.
The British were tree-lovers too, and the British architect Edwin Lutyens went to great pains to ensure that all the main avenues in New Delhi were lined with handpicked species. Jamun (black berry) trees were planted along the Raj Path and likewise, I remember, some other Lutyen’s Delhi roads having only neem (margosa) and tamarind trees on their respective sides.
During my stay in the Curzon Road Apartments in New Delhi in the early 1970s I had observed that Curzon Road had two rows of trees on each side of the road with a small asphalted strip for movement of two-way traffic with the sides left kutcha, un-asphalted. Compulsions for accommodating the burgeoning vehicular traffic made the authorities asphalt the entire available surface. Within a year or two, however, I noticed, a row of trees was being felled to meet the increasing demands of the Delhi traffic. Thankfully, the British had provided a total of four rows of trees on the road as otherwise Curzon Road, as indeed many other roads in Central Delhi, would have become bereft of any greenery long years ago.
During those very years if one happened to visit the newly-developing areas of, say, South Extension using the still up-‘n’-coming Ring Road one would get that bare and arid feeling. The Ring Road was being laid but none ever thought of planting trees on the sides. That goes as well for numerous other colonies that kept coming up during those years. It was, apparently not in the Public Works Department (PWD) or, shall we say, the Delhi Development Authority culture? Probably they never included the cost of tree-plantation in their projects but, perhaps, would readily include the cost of felling them if these happened to obstruct the road alignment.
In Bhopal in Central India during the construction of the BRTS corridor when trees were being felled right and left to widen the existing roads the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum took up the matter with the Commissioner, Bhopal Municipal Corporation. Strangely, the Commissioner countered the Forum’s objections on felling of trees by saying that compensatory plantation was being undertaken on a hillock outside the town. Apparently, trees on the roadsides for him and his minions had no role and could be dispensed with. That the trees render ecosystem services hosting colonies of birds and other creatures and also beautify the roads seemed to be much beyond their comprehension. Hence no space was provided along the widened tarmac which, most likely, will play havoc with the citizens when the city sizzles in the peak of summer in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F). Worse, he was not aware of the “Actions” adopted under the Urban Environmental Accords signed at San Francisco during the World Mayors’ Conference on June 5, 2005 in pursuant of which the city government was to maintain canopy coverage at least of 50% on all available sidewalk planting sites.
Showing exemplary persistence, the Forum persuaded the Commissioner to consider translocation of the huge, mature, decades-old trees, an enterprise that was reported to have met with success at Indore. Accordingly, as many as eighty-odd trees (against a few thousand felled) were reported to have been translocated with the help of an expert summoned from Indore. Yet, on the day the massive trees in front of Kamla Park, a heritage site, were being uprooted I happened to witness a pathetic sight. Hundreds of bats roosting on those trees were rendered homeless and were flying round and round during the high noon, seemingly not knowing where to go. The effort and the sacrifice of the bats and other creatures, however, seems to have been in vain as recent reports indicate that the survival rate of the translocated trees was very poor – just about 10 to 20 percent.
Perhaps better counsels could have been obtained. The Minister of Urban Administration always used to claim that he would turn Bhopal into another Singapore. That being so, one wonders as to why help in this matter was not sought from that City State which has developed an expertise in replanting imported fully-grown trees. Planting a sapling and nurturing it to grow over many years is too much of a hassle for it. It also wants the trees to decorate and not shed leaves or drop ripe fruits to mess up the roadsides. Only such trees, non-messy and fully grown, were therefore imported and replanted. Despite its rather peculiar attitude none can deny the State’s love for civic aesthetics and the roadside trees, which, it believes, also decorate them.
The role of trees in beautifying roads can also be seen in China and Japan which I happened to see for myself in the spring of 1982. Particularly in Beijing and Nanking roads were lined with trees of uniform heights and width. The trees also branched out from a uniform height. Standing on the pavement one could see the bare stems of the trees and branches radiating from all of them from a pre-determined height. The Chinese and Japanese appear to go to great lengths to care for them. To prevent sprouting of branches up to the desired height the civic workers would tie ropes around the stem then leave the trees to grow. Later controlling the height and width of the tree is, apparently, managed by tree-surgeons or arborists. The then tree-lined empty, almost devoid of automobiles, roads of Beijing and Nanking looked fascinatingly beautiful.
Unfortunately, we in India suffer from lack of concern for citizens as also lack civic aesthetics. Our public bodies are devoid of them, especially those like the municipalities, PWD, housing boards and other urban development organisations. Their big wigs know only beautifying their own offices or those of their bosses – political or civil. What they build for the people is generally bland, which frequently are also ugly. Worse, they refuse to improve.