Can we please save the banyans of Chevella?

In old black-and-white Hindi or Telugu films, or any of the regional films, one often sees long empty stretches of road with large old shade-bearing trees on either side. A typical frame might feature the hero and heroine in an open-top Chevrolet, hair flying in the breeze, singing a romantic duet as they drive under the enormous canopies. The air seems fresh and unpolluted, sunlight filters through the leaves making dappled patterns on their young faces, love is in the air, and all seems well with the world!

Such roads still exist here and there all over India, but with new road-widening projects being taken up every day with a vengeance, we are losing them one by one and they are increasingly becoming rarities. If this trend continues, old films might well be the only place we might see such tree-lined roads. Nostalgia apart, one needs to think about what this road widening is doing to our world’s old tree habitats and green cover.

The issue: Massive trees to be chopped for road widening on the 
Hyderabad-Chevella-Bijapur road

As interior roads get upgraded to state highways, and state highways get upgraded to national highways, the first task of road-widening crews is to clear the road of ancient trees with wide girths and canopies. This thoughtless barbarity of axeing 30-50+ year-old trees – our valuable living heritage – has sadly become the norm. 

As per a recent report in The Indian Express, this is precisely what is being planned on long stretches of the Hyderabad-Chevella-Bijapur highway. Around 9,300 trees, of which more than 1000 are majestic banyans, many of them 50 years and older, have been marked for the deathly whine of chainsaws in order to widen the old Vikarabad road (SH4), now designated as NH 163, where road expansion is in progress from Moinabad to Manneguda. These banyans and other old trees are utterly unique.

There are probably no such tree clusters to be found anywhere in a radius of 40 km around Hyderabad, and certainly none in such numbers. If these gentle giants die, a part of Telangana’s heritage dies with them. Cutting them would amount to murder most foul – for each is a veritable living universe in itself, and collectively these have developed into a unique habitat – home to myriad birds and creatures, big and small. What’s more, among all trees, banyans are irreplaceable, for they take decades to grow, centuries to mature, and their interlocking canopies above the roads and their prop roots coming down offer a spectacle that rivals any wonder in the natural world.

Pradip Krishen, film maker, environmentalist, and acclaimed author of “Trees of Delhi” and “Jungle Trees of Central India” says, “The road should be made bypassing the big banyans, which should be treated like heritage trees and landscapes. What a beautiful new avenue you could have if the road wove its way in and out of these landmark trees. Every bit as charismatic as tigers or whales!”

Why large trees should be left where they are

Every old tree, apart from its many uses to human beings, is a teeming eco-system in itself, home to a myriad animals, birds and insects. Large canopies accommodate larger populations for roosting and provide enough food for all the creatures inhabiting them. If there are multiple old trees in the vicinity, the trees grow even healthier and support a large and diverse community of creatures on their interlocking branches. Human beings ultimately benefit from their proximity to this large, super-efficient and thriving habitat.

Old and large tree canopies are also more botanically efficient than those of young trees as oxygen generators, soil moisture retainers, dust collectors, water rechargers and carbon sequesterers. The larger and older the tree, the more species of birds and insects it can support. So, quite apart from the aesthetics and beauty they lend to our landscape, cutting down large tree clusters results in displacing an extraordinary variety of dependent life and changing the regional ecosystem, all of which ultimately affects weather patterns and adds to the climate change catastrophe we currently find ourselves in.

Why translocation won’t work for large trees

People often suggest translocation of trees as the alternative to chopping them down. They imagine a feel-good ‘have your cake and eat it too’ scenario, in which the whole tree is lifted from its long established habitat and planted elsewhere, where it is assumed it will magically thrive again.  However, this is far from the truth.

The sheer size of a large tree requires that it be pruned before translocation. With only a small fraction of the leaves present, the tree is usually unable to grow roots and rejuvenate fast. Even if it does survive, the very reason for its translocation – that is, to retain its value in its entirety and the life it supports – is lost. It ceases to be a fully functioning tree that does everything from removing pollutants from the air to recharging water. Moreover, since the roots are often cut back, the large trunk is unsupported during storms, which massively increases the risk of it falling and causing further damage.

The state of translocated trees on the Chevella road
The photo at right shows trees that were translocated on the Chevella road. At Tolkata (near Shangri la farm house), a total of 35 translocated ‘stumps’ were found, of which only three banyans have survived. On the same road, before Manneguda and after Tangadipalli X roads, 18 stumps were found, of which some were either Rain trees or Siris and the rest banyan, with only three survivors.
To prepare a large tree for successful translocation, the process must start 8 months in advance and subsequently requires continued support and monitoring for at least 3 years. It will take at least 25 years, if at all, for a large translocated tree to regain its lost glory!

A jamun tree being prepared for translocation
from an apartment complex in Himayatnagar.
In Hyderabad, it has been observed that translocated trees have not always survived even after considerable expenditure, as in the case of a large jamun tree (see photo at left) that was translocated from Himayatnagar to Indira Park in January 2010. Needless to say, it did not survive. In Adilabad town, 133 trees were translocated due to widening of old NH-7, but only 59 survived. Senior journalist Harpal Singh writes “The low rate of survival thus calls for an area- and species-specific relook into the concept of translocation which would in any case be cut for developmental activities. This could help formulate a policy on tree translocation, a practice which is slowly gaining ground slowly and proving lucrative business as well”.2  As if to corroborate Singh’s point, Adilabad Forest Divisional Officer V. Chandra Sekhara Rao adds “Our effort in shifting the trees to other locations was very basic. We just took out the trees with roots and planted them elsewhere without incurring any expenditure. Experts do the same things using sophisticated machinery and root treatment processes. Those involve huge expenditure”.

Why planting new saplings is not the answer

It is a tragic sight to see stumps of large uprooted trees
 Is the solution to go ahead and chop down or throw away large trees, and plant saplings to compensate this loss? National and state-level laws in India permit ‘Compensatory Afforestation’ as a compromise between ecological considerations and development requirements. However, as mentioned earlier, clusters of fully grown trees have great value for human beings and other forms of life, and our co-existence has deep and abiding mutual benefits. Planting saplings in place of large trees is just not the same thing. Often, the saplings are planted in some other location entirely, either outside the city or wherever space is available. And very often, the species chosen are fast-growing exotics, not the native tamarind, peepal, banyan or mango trees that they replace. It is the same when new roads are made. Large trees on both sides of the road are replaced with young saplings on medians, and these are mostly flowering shrubs and showy small trees that are maintenance-intensive.

New saplings along a pathway (photo from the internet).
“Most urban development projects provide grandiose claims of replacing each mature tree felled with 2-10 saplings. But a mature, decades-old tree has an incredible capacity for pollution control, biodiversity support and cooling. Large trees can absorb and sequester as much carbon as 90 small trees. Trees in cities are 4-6 times more useful in removing carbon from the air compared to rural trees, because urban air is overloaded with carbon emissions. Saplings will take decades to provide the same scale of environmental services”, says Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.3

Climate change is real and we need to act now

It is high time that those in governance (governments/administrations) sat up and asked a few questions on what we could be doing wrong to contribute to changing weather patterns. According to Global Forest Watch, India has lost more than 1,20,000 hectares of primary forests in the last 5 years alone. In all probability, we have also lost an equal amount of green cover to road-widening projects and related infrastructure development.

What is the green cover Telangana has lost in the last 5 years? How many old trees – mangoes, neem, jamun and banyans – have been axed to widen the roads around Hyderabad? No one seems to know or care! But everyone can see that the rampant tree-felling has drastically changed the climate for the worse, exponentially increased air pollution levels, and changed temperatures so that day (and even night) summer heat is now close to infernal. Winters have become unseasonably and extremely cold, summer showers are unusually violent, with persistent lightning, thunder and high wind speeds that have been uprooting hundreds of trees, in the process harming people, property, and the environment itself.

Not surprisingly, there have even been instances of extreme weather. Hail storms are increasing and some years, reports indicate ‘snowing’ at various locations in Telangana. In fact, in 2013, there were reports of snowfall in Chevella! The newspaper report said, “Several villages in three mandals of Rangareddy in Andhra Pradesh were completely transformed on Wednesday as ice covered the entire area after a violent bout of hailstorm. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for people living in seven villages in Chevella, Moinabad and Shankarpally as
Snow-hail in Chevella, January 2013.
hailstones, some as large as boulders, started falling from the sky on Tuesday night.  According to scientists, the hailstorm was caused by a severe thunderstorm where the clouds had risen above the height of 10 to 12 km. They said that global warming could also be a contributing factor to this extremely rare phenomenon.”4

Is upgrading SH4 to NH163 necessary?

The traffic being primarily local vehicles, this upgradation is not warranted, especially when there is a major highway (Bombay road via Zaheerabad) that connects to Bijapur. This highway has recently been expanded to a four-lane capacity at the cost of  thousands of stately old trees. Why not utilize this already-available infrastructure?  Widening this road does not serve any national economic purpose that a national highway aspires to serve.

Possible hindrances caused by the local traffic to the regional cross border traffic can be best addressed by plying more buses. In the absence of bus improvements, substantial local commuters aspiring to move to private vehicles – which will continue to keep the road congested post expansion. Construction of a typical NH takes 3-4 years at least and costs thousands of crores – introducing much more frequent and better public transport facilities would be an easier and faster way to deal with local traffic. This is under the purview of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in the Centre and Ministry of Roads and Buildings at the State level in Telangana.

Proposal on what should be done

Given these alarming environmental scenarios, what should be done regarding the road-widening project on the Chevella road? We suggest that NHAI and the Ministry of Roads and Transport (and where necessary the state department) should coordinate with the forest department, and through thoughtful public consultations, innovatively modify road design to save hundreds of these voiceless, magnificent, life-giving trees, in ways that meet modern development goals without losing focus on the environment and valuable natural heritage.

We propose that The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the National Highways Authority of India should:

1. Ideally give the entire road heritage status, and leave it as it is now in all its grandeur. In doing so, the Government of Telangana will set an example to the rest of India (and the world). To ease traffic congestion, introduce much more frequent and better public transport facilities. 


2. Replan the project to save, in toto, the best road stretches with large, mature banyans and other large trees. The trees can be retained as medians (minimum width of 7 ft) with road expansions carried out on either side, and curved to accommodate a heritage tree in the corner or centre. Where this is not feasible, the trees on one side can be retained and the road widened on the other.

3. Totally bypass the areas where the banyans and other large trees are most well grown and at their most mature. Translocation is not an option for large, mature trees because of poor chances of survival, as (outlined above and as) observed during earlier attempts.

4. As per the the TS WALTA Act, many tree species commonly seen along roads do not need the Forest Department’s permission to be chopped down. Self-certification was introduced to enable ease of business. We request that this policy be reversed, and that all the earlier non-exempted trees species be reinstated – this includes all species of trees except Eucalyptus sp, Subabul (Leucaena leucocephala) and Prosopis juliflora. By exempting species of ecological value, the government is devaluing their importance

We have already lost far too many grand old trees that majestically lined our roads. To mention just two recent road-widening efforts, on the roads from Chegunta to Medak, and from Aler to Warangal, we lost more than 2000 banyans, peepals, rain trees and other grand old tree species that were chopped down without a thought.

Let us put a stop to this mindless slaughter of stately old trees for road widening, not just on the Chevella Road, but everywhere in India. We need to preserve green, tree-lined roads for future generations, and not replace them with cold, grey concrete. Let us not relegate tree-lined avenues to memory and old films, and suffer the devastating consequences of climate change, all of which promise to increase in years to come. Our beautiful old trees should be declared as national treasures, notified as our natural heritage, and allowed to stay where they are. Let us collectively protect these beautiful banyans as heritage, not destroy them through short-sighted development policy that harms far more than it helps. 

2. S. Harpal Simgh. “Survival a major challenge for translocated trees”. The Hindu, 1 May 2019
3. R K Misra, Kanchi Kohli, Manju Menon, and Harini Nagendra. “Is planting saplings a solution to the felling of trees?” The Hindu, 13 July 2018
4. Amar Tejaswi, “Chevella hails the ‘snow’.” The Deccan Chronicle, 31 January 2013

(Compiled by members of the group Nature Lovers of Hyderabad)