In a city where real estate has been soaring and there is a strong timber lobby, Dipika Bajpai has a tough job. The Deputy Conservator of Forests of Bengaluru has the responsibility to protect the forest blocks of the city and to work on the afforestation project to keep the city green. In a telephonic interview with Citizen Matters, the officer spoke about the lack of a green policy, its repercussions and the challenges of protecting land in a city where space it at a premium.
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Can you summarise the status of urban forests in Bangalore, their preservation and the laws under which they are protected?
There are 35 identified forest blocks in Bangalore City that spread across 11,000 acres. These were notified last in 1932 by the Maharaja of Mysore. They are designated, reserved and protected areas as such. But in a city like Bangalore, we face rampant encroachment. This alienation has meant the area has shrunk significantly. Today we have about 8000 acres of land that continues to have the character of an urban forest. We are fighting a tough battle legally to recover this lost area, all the while ensuring that we don’t lose more of it to illegal encroachment. But have no doubt. We will get it back. There are three main laws under which these areas are protected – Karnataka Forest Act 1963, The Karnataka Tree Protection Act 1976 which fall under the aegis of the State. Then there is the Forest Conservation Act 1980 which falls under the Central Government. These are quite strong.
What about jurisdiction? How does it get divided between the BBMP Forest Cell and the Forest Department?
While the officers of the BBMP Forest Cell are on deputation from the department, they are not answerable to the department. We have been trying to sort this out and bring back the forest cell into the department. It hasn’t reflected very well on the forest department as the BBMP cell is in charge of permissions for cutting the trees. So the perception is that we aren’t doing enough to protect the green cover of the city. But the officers in the BBMP Forest Cell work under immense pressure. They have to respond to 198 elected corporators, besides the city MLAs and MPs, which always comes with its own challenges.
The BBMP Forest Cell/ Forest department claims to plant lakhs of saplings every year to compensate for the trees that have been cut down. Yet every report about the environment of the city claims the city green cover is rapidly decreasing. Where are these saplings? Is it a question of survival? What are the initiatives taken by the forest department?
I can answer this for the Forest Department. Every year, we plant about 2,00,000 saplings around the city and we do a casualty replacement (because we may lose some of them to external factors of weather, people etc). I would still put the survival rate at 75%. We also have three to five year maintenance contracts for these saplings. Since the time of Mr S G Neginhal, it is a policy to plant saplings that are more than 6 feet tall for a better chance of survival. We have watchers for these saplings. We are now discussing the possibility of a policy of dividing the city in smaller grids for have a more effective guarding and planting of saplings and seedlings. We now have them as grids of either 3 hectare or 3km blocks.
So what is the constraint for greening of the city ? Is it that of budget?
Oh no! Budget is not the issue at all. I have 4 lakh saplings for planting every year. My constraint is land. Give me space to plant trees! I can’t find one hectare of land to plant saplings in the city. Where will I plant them in a city which has the kind of built up space we see? Some of the spaces have turned into landfills. Others have Construction and Demolition waste dumped into them which erodes the topsoil. We don’t have the budget to get them cleared. If the BBMP can clear these spaces for us, we can work on them.
There is science of of creating green cover in a city – Avenue Planting and Cluster planting besides the connecting stretches. Where has Bangalore really lost its green cover?
You are right. These are the three main ways to create urban greenery. I would say it is avenue planting where we have lost a lot of green cover. That is because of the road widening. I would estimate that in the next decade or so, almost every road in the city will come up for road widening and we will lose a lot more of the older trees. We cannot afford to have this happen. Bangalore has traditionally had avenue-lined roads where large raintrees created canopies that helped pedestrians and motorists, providing shade and keeping the carbon emissions in check. Given the situation we are in today, it would be difficult to plant rain trees, because they just need too much space and we do have a space constraint. But we have other species that can line our roads. But the idea of not having tree lined roads will be detrimental to us.
Most citizens who work in the area of protecting trees do not focus on this aspect. People need to start fighting for avenue trees and demanding them. Look at the sore thumb we know as Church Street. It is a European concept that works well there. We need to look at our weather, our city’s topography and design roads for that. One thing we should definitely give up is our obsession for lawns. They are water intensive and do nothing to help our environment. Ideally we should also have a policy that mandates it for roads to have trees on either sides for a city like Bangalore.
But it is not just the green inside the city. Ecosystems are interconnected and meshed in ways that are a lot more complex. It is for this reason we also have to look at creating policy to protect the green belt that lined the city outside of the Outer Ring Road perimeter. The explosion of Bangalore has meant that the green belt almost completely vanished. Did we need it? Of course we do! Nobody is looking at it right now.
While the government figures out the policy, what is it that a private citizens can do to help with protecting and increasing Urban greenery?
Well, I must say the people in the city are very aware and have taken up the cause of protecting green cover very effectively. The proposed change in the KTPA was picked up by the citizens quite quickly and stopped. I would say the green cover in Bangalore stands a good chance because people are looking to protect it. When I am invited for talks to colleges and asked what can they can do to protect and increase green cover in the city, I always tell the to start with their own colleges. Instead of lawns, have trees. We should protect and plant what is around us. That alone will go a long way.
We owe to the next generation to leave a city that allows them to breathe. There are no official statistics that I know of. But every time I take my daughter to the hospital (she has a health issue because of the air quality) I see so many other children coming in with breathing problems. It looks like seven out of ten children have some problem or the other. Are we looking to create a generation hooked up to nebulisers? We definitely need to do better.