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694 Nizam-era banyan trees in way of NH 163 widening. Telangana citizens fight NHAI

The 926-crore project has seen intense opposition since it was proposed. Citizens say translocation not an option as many trees will not survive it.

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Hyderabad: The banyan trees that stand like silent sentinels on either side of the road to Manneguda have either green or white bands painted on their trunks. Most are marked white—an ominous sign that they are at risk of being felled for an expansion project. The National Highways Authority of India wants to widen a 46.5 km stretch of National Highway 163 on the outskirts of Hyderabad, and the trees are in the way.

According to local farmers and citizens, many of the banyan trees, with their long roots sweeping the pavement below, date back to the Nizam era. A group of citizens have banded together to save them, taking the fight to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). ‘Save Banyans of Chevella’ has become their clarion call, a reference to the area they grow in—Chevella, in Ranga Reddy district.

The NHAI claims that 544 banyan trees on the stretch will be affected, but a group of volunteers have put the number at 694. Around 20 people devoted 200 hours, measuring and counting each tree and geotagging it.

“We’re not part of any organisation, nor do we have any support. We’re just individuals who love nature and have come together for this fight,” said Tejah Balantrapu, a ‘nature enthusiast’ who filed the petition against NHAI with the NGT.

The highways authority wants to expand the accident-prone stretch on NH 163 — between Hyderabad and Manneguda — from two to four lanes in an almost Rs 1,000 crore project.

The project was initiated in 2019 but received backlash from environmentalists and concerned citizens. After this, it was kept on hold for some time.

It was around the same time that Balantrapu and other like-minded citizens got together for a ‘tree-appreciation’ programme. “We then got to know about the banyans and how the project threatens their existence. We decided to fight to protect them,” said Balantrapu.

After a lull during the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue gathered steam when the Union ministry of roads and transport allocated Rs 926 crore for the project in September 2021. That year, the stretch saw 240 accidents, resulting in the deaths of 46 people; another 441 were injured—according to NHAI data. In an affidavit to the NGT, NHAI cited “many sub-standard horizontal and vertical curves” as the cause.

In a December 2021 petition to the Tribunal, the citizen’s group sought a realignment of the NHAI’s road plan, which they claim could save hundreds of trees. The next NGT hearing is expected on 21 February.

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Translocation not an ideal solution

The green and white markings aren’t the only indicator that a change is in the offing. There are also check posts painted in bright yellow, with coordinates written on them, on either side of the road and some in the fields beyond. They mark the extent to which the road is going to be widened.

The stretch of the highway slated to be widened has 914 banyan trees, of which 145 are in Mudimyal Reserve Forest, under the forest department’s purview. Some of the trees in the forest are also likely to be affected, but the exact number is not yet known.

The NHAI has not included these trees in the total count, which is why their final tally differs from that of the petitioners.

The highways authority is open to the idea of translocation. In a recent affidavit to the NGT, it noted that “90 per cent of the banyan trees are as good as any other tree”. A copy of the affidavit is with ThePrint.

The petitioners have taken this to mean that the highways authority thinks there’s nothing extraordinary about the trees for them to be translocated.

The NHAI’s affidavit also noted that they had lost their ecological value.

“It was also found that out of the 759 banyan trees [NHAI’s figure], hardly few of the trees have big trunks and huge branches,” NHAI said in the affidavit, adding that some of the trees can be translocated.

But translocating a banyan tree is easier said than done. It is physically laborious and will take at least two to three days, said Uday Krishna, founding trustee of the non-profit Vata Foundation that translocates trees, among other things. The Hyderabad-based organisation has translocated over 2,500 trees with a survival rate of about 85 per cent.

A counter affidavit filed by Balantrapu and the others states that during the translocation processes, only the stump of the trunk is transferred, while the canopy, aerial roots, and branches are lopped off.

“A banyan tree sustains not only because of its trunk but also its canopy and aerial roots. NHAI has not submitted any evidence of mass translocation success,” stated the affidavit, a copy of which is with ThePrint. The survival of a tree and or even its recovery after translocation is not guaranteed.

According to Krishna, it’s impossible to translocate a Banyan tree without cutting its branches. “It’s surgery, one that needs intense post-care to ensure that they survive the shock,” he said. He explained that the roots would not support the weight of the tree and there’s no way you can remove it without cutting the branches. Post translocation, a tree requires care for almost two years.

And if only the stumps are translocated, “will it bloom to its full capacity? Can it look like how it was before?” Kobita Dass Kolli, environmentalist and plant scientist asked.

Krishna filed an online petition to protect the banyan trees when the project was first announced in 2019. It got over 35,000 signatures.

He got an opportunity to speak to Union Road Transport and Highways minister Nitin Gadkari about the matter when he was on a translocation project in Maharashtra.

“I could at least get the NHAI [because of Gadkari and the petition] to consider translocation, otherwise they would have decided to fell them,” he added.

The loss of canopy wouldn’t just affect local urban flora and fauna, but it would deprive citizens of much-needed shade and green cover during Hyderabad’s harsh summers.

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Livelihoods at stake

The banyan trees have been a constant in 43-year-old farmer Raghavender’s life. Every day, he comes from the neighbouring Aloor village and sells the vegetables he grows under the shade of the trees.

“Can you see the banyan tree on the opposite side? I have been seeing it ever since I was a kid. My father, who was 80 when he died two years ago, said the tree was there when he was a child, and it is still there,” Raghavender told ThePrint.

There are no markets nearby and this makeshift set-up on the side of the highway is how the local farmers earn their living.

A roadside market on NH 163 | By special arrangement
A roadside market on NH 163 | By special arrangement

Next to Raghavender is 47-year-old Shanker, selling coconuts from his farm, which is adjacent to the road.

“I will lose a stretch of my farm and trees. They’ve offered me compensation, and I know there’s nothing much I can do, so I accepted it,” he said, pointing to a coconut tree that he says is one of the oldest but will be lost in the process. “Is the water not better and sweeter than what you drink in cities?” asked Shankar with the pitch of a true salesman while offering a coconut from his trees.

Necessary upgrade

The Tribunal, as part of the hearing, asked the NHAI to consider re-aligning the road, constructing a parallel one without disturbing the trees, and acquiring more land if required.

The NHAI responded saying the road would be widened in such a way that some of the trees would be saved. But a parallel road was not possible because it is serpentine in shape, and most of the neighbouring land is either in the catchment or forest areas. It added that acquiring land was not possible either, due to legal issues.

The highways authority also stated that the stretch’s PCU (passenger car unit) count limit had overshot the threshold. Upgradation becomes mandatory when the limit crosses 10,000. As of 2020, the PCU on the stretch stands at 14,470,  making the conversion necessary.

In other words, a wider road would accommodate more cars leading to fewer accidents.

NHAI project director Nageswara Rao declined to comment, saying the matter is in court and would be subjudice. He did, however, say that it was practically “impossible” to consider an alternate route for expansion due to logistical issues.

The citizen’s group has organised group protests against the project since 2019 but sometimes, lone members can be seen spreading the message.

On a Thursday morning, as Hyderabad’s temperature was rising toward the harsh summer it is known for, a 17-year-old boy stood near the Telangana Assembly with a placard that had an image of a burning globe and the statement globe = future. He spent the entire day there, registering his protest.

“I don’t want to see the banyan trees disappear,” he said.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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