This is a guest post by ANITHA SANTHI
We certainly are living through confusing and tumultuous times in Kerala. Amidst the Local Self-Government elections and beef festivals, deplorable attempts to segregate young minds on the basis of gender in campuses ( how one wishes that the same zeal was shown to segregate waste that is spreading like an epidemic), a mini drama was enacted by a few on the outskirts of the capital city. A quote from Bertolt Brecht’s To Those Born Later rings in my mind as I write this :
What kind of times are they
When a talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
The Silence about Trees and other Horrors:
The National High way Authority of India (NHAI) Project Implementation Unit has been all ready to cut 10,000 trees along the 26km stretch from Kazhakuttom- Mukkola ( Vizhinjam) in the Thiruvananthapuram district – since Vizhinjam [the port project there, of the Adani group] is a word that is a panacea for all ills in Kerala , some of us were alerted at this sudden need to widen this segment. Since losing 10,000 trees along a small stretch like 26 kms seemed too huge an impact on the environment the first question that came in was “ Has an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) been done?”
Filing an RTI was the best option available and we did just that. Hey Presto, we get the EIA document done by NHAI for the whole distance from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari with no location- specific data. This was done in 2008 by an agency called SECON based in Bangalore. On closer examination it was obvious that SECON does not have specific accreditation for High way EIA studies though they claim to be experts in High Way Engineering!! On closer study it was revealed that the Department of Environment and Forests had prepared a Comprehensive Guideline for Highway EIA in 2010 which has not been followed by NHAI as the EIA document given was the one done in 2008.
Many discussions with people concerned revealed the following attitudes:
a. Oh, the Highway – can we even think of opposing it?
b. Oh does the highway need an EIA at all, especially for a small portion like this 26kms?
c. Oh after all it is money – that too crores- 854.24 crores and who are we to say a word?
But the image of certain segments of the road covered with innumerable flowering trees kept surfacing. In Jan 2015 a few of us took a walk along the best Green Corridor in the area- 3.5kms from Thiruvallom- Vazhamuttom with over 2000 trees. Most of them were flowering trees – during the specific flowering season the road are strewn with different shades of yellow, mauve, pink or red ! We found that the trees were planted less than 30 years ago after the Kovalam road was realigned. So our planning does not conceive a long-term perspective !
But what was shocking was the number of shops, entrepreneurs in resorts, ayurveda treatment centers, ethnic food hotels, antique shops that have come up there in recent times. Along with this are the tender coconut sellers, fruit and vegetable vendors and so on. It was quite a shock to see that huge buildings selling lamps, cars and other wares have also come up recently after the Highway plan was finalized. So who gave them permission? What about the access and parking facilities for them? What about the entrance to Ananthapuri Hospital and the International Airport? What happens to the umpteen houses that are located by the side of the acquired land? Won’t the 45 metre road with median, 2 carriage ways, shoulders, service roads and utility corridors usurp all possible liveable common spaces for the people? What about temples, churches, schools and other areas that have an active interface with the public- how secure and safe would this be? Is there a compensation package for the land and property that will be taken away from the people?
But the recent news concerning highway development centered around the multiples of FOUR. Tree has anyway become a four-letter word in Kerala as the whole development process views trees as a threat and hindrance. Ignoring all the above mentioned relevant factors, the discussion concentrated on the lag in High way development connected to the trees and permission for their removal. The toothless, clawless and often helpless Tree Monitoring Committee went on several inspection rounds and the final verdict is out…now there is no more hindrance to highway development
The verdict is this:
4200 trees will be cut
490 will be saved
40,000 will be planted
In between there were some loud proclamations about transplanting the trees which was appealing to many – but since Kerala has the history of only cutting trees and planting all over again, we do not have the equipment to transplant. One wonders how the much lauded transplanting of a Jamun tree in the Disaster Management Authority Office recently was done and whether it survived the trauma.
The questions that loom loud are these :
Who will monitor that the above multiples of four figures will be maintained when the actual process is on? What if the 4201 th tree is cut, only 390 are saved and the planting will be short by 100 ( 39,900) – will the contractor, the tree cutter and the overseer make sure that the figures are correct? Why should they is a question that bothers…Where will the trees be planted – anyone who has planted a single sapling will understand the difficulty of it. Which will be the species? Will the replanting several kilometers away compensate for the loss and impact at Thiruvallom or Vazhamuttom?
These are doubts, anxieties and questions that the Multiples of Four that have surfaced around the four-letter word TREE raises in my mind.
There were attempts to submit a comprehensive, innovative and novel plan for making this highway a four lane based on more ecological and sustainable parameters- this was conveniently ignored and dismissed. How can we dismiss the Chief Secretary’s open apology to the trees, the birds and butterflies who are losing their homes?
If you share the concerns expressed here, do respond to firstname.lastname@example.org
Anitha S is an environmental educator and researcher with a focus on marine and coral reef ecology. She is the co-ordinator of Tree Walk- Thiruvananthapuram since 2012 that has been raising issues of concern related to urban development and green open spaces.