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Hardlook: Vadodara Green Cover- Cloud over the banyan canopy

Two major roads in Vadodara, R C Dutt and Jail Roads, are in the process of expansion. Standing in the way are age-old Banyans, symbolic to the city which gets its name from these trees. Will the trees have to go?

Written by Aditi Raja | Pune |
February 13, 2017 1:00:32 am
(Above) A view of the R C Dutt Road, which has several banyan and other trees on the both sides, besides iconic bungalows; these trees are home to thousands of parakeets. Bhupendra Rana (Above) A view of the R C Dutt Road, which has several banyan and other trees on the both sides, besides iconic bungalows; these trees are home to thousands of parakeets. Bhupendra Rana

The Vadodara Municipal Corporation’s aggressive drive to widen roads as part of the Smart City Project raises questions over the fate of innumerable trees on the way. The two major roads of the city — the R C Dutt Road in Alkapuri and the Jail Road connecting the Rajmahal Road, both replete with age-old banyan trees to which the city owes its name Vadodara — are due for widening. The city was earlier called Baroda, the anglicised version of its ancient name Vatpadraka. The VMC, which has a banyan tree in its logo, has assured that it plans to include the characteristic banyans of the city as part of the road widening plan.

As per the VMC plan, the R C Dutt Road will be 36 metres wide — 18 metres on each side.While from the Station end to GEB Circle it is already 18 metres wide, from the other end the road is as narrow as 8 metres in some places. This stretch is also lined by nearly 100 banyan trees. The civic body plans to widen this stretch by acquiring compounds of private and government properties.

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Besides the 100-odd banyans, countless trees on the compounds of the bungalows along the road are roosting sites of rose-ringed parakeets. While there is no official data regarding the exact number of parakeets roosting on these trees every evening, enthusiasts say the number could be as high as 70,000. Apart from parakeets, the trees are ideal site to spot other common garden birds that make up for the bio-diversity of the city.

An avid birdwatcher and president of Baroda Management Association (BMA), Avi Sabavala said preservation of trees is as essential as development. Sabavala pointed out to how the city lost its population of vultures and garden sparrows.

“These trees on the R C Dutt Road are home to flocks of common garden birds like rose-ringed parakeets, spotted dove, red vented bulbul, laughing duck, purple sunbird, oriental whiteeye and tailor birds. When we cut trees, we are taking away the nesting sites. The result is that it is helping proliferate the blue rock pigeon population. So, the biodiversity is at stake,” said Sabavala, even as he maintained road widening is inevitable. “But the corporation has land to ensure that the trees can be replanted. We will have to look at alternatives with the help of technology.”

The road widening will also take away a portion of the compounds of characteristic bungalows that currently make up residences of the commissioner of police, district collector, principal district judge, and the Circuit House. Along with these structures, also in line are two bungalows owned by the Contractor family.

On the Faramji lane, adjacent to the R C Dutt Road, the VMC has already begun demolishing the compound of the Vadodara Railway Station. The civic body will broaden the road to 30 meters width.

Across the road is the landmark white bungalow owned by businessman Nikitin Contractor, who has been fighting a battle with the civic body in order to save a major portion of his land. Contractor has acquired a stay on the demolition of the compound of his house. Earlier, he was in a litigation with the Railways over encroachment of his property.

Contractor said, “Almost 100 years ago, our ancestors built these bungalows, which are part of the city’s heritage. Our family occupied the houses after Independence. Several decades ago, when the present day roads did not exist, we were requested to give away some land to build the original Faramji Road. We willingly did so. But time and again, we have been harassed by the authorities… influential people have an eye on our properties too.”

He said the government plan for road widening by acquiring private properties is “highly unfair”. “The civic body can draw roadlines wherever they wish, without compensating the citizens or even taking them into confidence. They first told me that they would demolish my property until my drawing room. Then there was a lull. Now, they have measured the property again and told me they will demolish up to my porch. How can I even allow that?,” Contractor said.

INTACH Gujarat co-convener Sanjeev Joshi does not think road widening is necessary and cites example of Parisian boulevards. Joshi said, “Road widening is not a solution. It has not been practiced world over. Our intention should be to protect the identity of these roads, even if they are narrow. So, if the characteristic of the R C Dutt Road is these trees, then we need to preserve it so that it doesn’t become like any other road. The R C Dutt Road has been an avenue to trees when the Race Course Road came up and is heritage by itself.”

In 2015, for a project of the state R&B Department, a total of 4,830 trees were cut to create a 29.6 km four-lane road connecting Vadodara to Dabhoi and onward to Kevadia Colony in Narmada district. This project is part of the Statue Of Unity project.

City-based activist Pankaj Darve, who has filed several applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005, to seek details about the mandatory procedure followed by the government agencies before felling the trees, said he received no reply. “I have sought information regarding the cutting of trees across Vadodara city by the VMC and also the R&B Department in 2015 on the Vadodara-Dabhoi stretch. While, the R&B and the Forest Departments kept transferring my applications to various departments, the VMC is yet to reply. It is unfortunate that our governments and administrative bodies do not understand the importance of preserving the green cover,” Darve said.

Along the Jail Road, iconic Shanta Devi Hospital has been razed reportedly to make way for a mall. The property is privately owned by the erstwhile royal Gaekwad family, and it is through the acquisition of part of this compound that the VMC is creating an additional lane to ease traffic from the existing Jail road.

VMC officials denied that trees were cut down to make the road. They said the VMC will transplant as many trees as possible in order to create this additional road.

Municipal Commissioner Vinod Rao said that special designers have been roped in to design the Jail Road and the RC Dutt Road, keeping the aesthetic beauty of the location intact. “Not a single banyan tree will be cut in the process of opening of road line. An equally important stretch where a lot of thick greenery is present, is the Jail Road. We have got a tree transplantation machine and started work,” Rao said.

Former principal secretary, forest and environment, S K Nanda said that between 2008 and 2010, the state government discussed a proposal to preserve banyan trees that indigenously grow in Vadodara. Nanda said, “ Trees grow in specific areas, like the banyan tree which is indigenous to Vadodara… we tried to plant more banyan trees in Vadodara in the two years. But the proposal was lost with time. A lot of discussions took place and we also conducted a tree count.” Nanda said that out of close to 40 lakh trees of various species found in Vadodara, around 10 lakh are banyan trees.

He noted: “In Bali (Indonesia), they have made roads around the trees in such a way that the trees act as speed breakers.”

The former senior official also cited the example of the Veraval-Rajkot National Highway expansion. “I had stayed the chopping of the trees, and forced the NHAI to change the design. Those trees — mostly banyan and peepal — were planted by the Nawabs of Jungadh, which were not less than 100 years old. I was more concerned about the banyan trees, which formed a canopy on the road. I forced them to change the alignment of the road.”

Nanda said that a tree with more than a 30-cm girth cannot be transplanted without threatening its longevity. “There were countless trees on the compound where the new Vadodara airport stands today. It was at my insistence that the trees were transplanted and not chopped off. We had provided the transplant machines. However, transplanting has no role to play in the case of banyan trees in Vadodara that are hundreds of years old,” he added.

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