WE WON!!! Two simple words. But even 24 hours after the NGT ruled in our favour, the enormity of what we accomplished is yet to sink in.
We are just a motley group of people. How can we expect to take on the System", I told a friend last year. "Only the Avengers can pull this off; we are not them." When we set out to save the Chevella Banyans, we hoped to win, but I doubt if we expected to win.
Everybody knows that banyans are a keystone species. Nobody denies the economic benefit of having a stretch of massive road lining banyans. Everyone claims to love trees. BUT, that dreaded word- DEVELOPMENT! We were accused to coming in the way of development.
We have been conditioned into thinking that it is always a battle between the environment and development. People advocating for the environment are branded as being "anti development". But, it need not be a binary. Both can co-exist. Both must co-exist.
"Road bhi. Jhaad bhi" was always our slogan. Widen the road by all means, but do it so the largest clusters of banyans and some of the last Deccan grasslands are bypassed. But people were unwilling to listen. Sadly our planners first draw a road on paper, then force fit it on the terrain.
Two years back, we took the case to the NGT, but we didn't have a watertight argument even there. The law doesn't protect the rights of road lining trees outside forests and reserves. We were fighting on a technicality. But our lawyer had faith in his arguments and we had faith in him.
How many banyans were we talking about? NHAI claimed there were only about 700 banyans. We estimated double the number. To resolve the matter, we walked the entire 42 kilometer stretch and counted the banyans on either side of the highway.
There were 914 banyans!
While we were at it, we also geotagged each of the banyans, photographed them, and noted down estimated girth, height and other notable features. This database was invaluable. It helped us respond to each of NHAI's claims with data based arguments.
Then, there were the flagbearers for translocation. People genuinely seemed to belive that you can translocate trees the way you move furniture around your drawing room. We spent an inordinate amount on energy in educating people about what translocation implies, the low success rate, and how massive banyans such as these are unlikely to survive translocation.
We were in a strange position. Everyone accepted the economic value of the banyan trees. Everyone realised that NHAI had made little effort to minimise the environmental disturbance. YET... the contract had been awarded. The trees had been marked and land acquired. Would the NGT rule in our favour?
The day before the judgement, I was asked if we would win. Though cautiously optimistic, I was realistic enough to say, "maybe not. But that we fought so hard with hard facts will make it easier for those who come after us." The ruling was a validation of all we believe in.
The judgement is a landmark one because it recognises the worth of road linking trees which are outside forests or reserves. It drives a wedge into the current thinking that planting "n" trees compensates for felling one.
We hope that this ruling sets a precedent and is used by others to drive a wedge into the mad expansion of infrastructure without even considering the environmental repercussions of it. We would love nothing more than for others to build on what we achieved.
- Natasha Ramarathnam