A little over 20 kilometres from Hyderabad, a stretch of banyan trees along National Highway 163 in Telangana has been a contested site for the past few years, with development interest groups and environmental protection activists fighting over it. The debate goes back to 2019, when the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) announced the four-laning of the stretch of National Highway 163 between Hyderabad and Bijapur (Karnataka), saying that the proposed expansion will address the problems of frequent accidents and increased vehicular traffic, which are common in this part of the highway. The section includes Chevella Road, which is lined with historic banyans in the 46 kms stretch between Moinabad and Manneguda. The NHAI was all set to axe hundreds of banyans for the road-widening project.
The 900-odd Nizam-era banyans are home to numerous animals and insects, including 25 fruit-eating and insect-eating birds, mammals like the chital and the wild boar, and about 20 medicinal plants. They provide shade to travellers and roadside sellers, who spread out their wares underneath the canopy. However, for the NHAI, most of these banyans were “as good as any other tree”, and so, could be axed for the development project.
The Nature Lovers of Hyderabad (NLH), a citizens’ collective, vehemently opposed the idea and launched an on-ground campaign, “Save Banyans of Chevella,” in 2019. They conducted walks and visits to raise awareness about the banyans while the NHAI continued to treat the trees as a hurdle. The NLH filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in December 2021, challenging the NHAI on several counts, including the lack of assessment of the environmental impact of the proposed tree-felling, not considering alternatives to the road widening project, among others, while pointing out that the stretch includes 5-6 kms of scrub forests next to the highway between Mudimyal and Kandlapally.
Victory for the NLH
On November 6, 2023, in a victory for the NLH’s sustained campaign, the NGT ordered the NHAI to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to minimise the loss of trees. The NGT directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to issue terms of reference and complete the process within four months while stressing that less harmful options for road expansion need to be figured out.
“When we filed the petition with the NGT, we could not find a precedent we could cite. There were a couple of cases, but nothing we could quote concerning the legal protection for such historic trees,” said Tejah Balantrapu, a petitioner and member of the NLH.
Further, as per provisions of the EIA notification, 2006 (amended in 2013), NHAI road projects under 100 km in length do not require prior environmental clearance. The unique ecosystem of the 46 km stretch of the Chevella banyans was thus left unprotected by the law.
“This road begins somewhere in Warangal and goes to Bijapur. So, in theory, the NHAI can rebuild the entire stretch in patches and never be required to conduct an EIA. That is another problem we wanted to highlight,” Balantrapu said. The NGT order thus holds significance not only for minimising the loss to the Chevella banyans but also for similar projects elsewhere. “The NGT is a mighty body. Any impact we could have on how they function is a welcome change. That is what this NGT order does for us. It sets a precedent,” Balantrapu said.
Alongside the NLH, a Hyderabad-based non-profit called the Vata Foundation has been campaigning in favour of the banyans since 2019. While the NLH maintained that the banyans should be left undisturbed, Vata Foundation offered to translocate the trees as an alternative to cutting them down.
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In one of the responses to the NGT petition, the NHAI stated that they were willing to translocate the banyans. In the judgment, the NGT too said that translocation is viable only for trees which have a circumference of less than 65cm and so, unsuitable for trees such as the banyan. It would be a waste of money, the tribunal noted, adding that compensatory afforestation and reforestation to offset the loss of trees was not a wise option. The NGT insisted on striking a balance between development and environmental conservation, suggesting that the NHAI should come up with an innovative road design to ensure an eco-friendly road layout.
The NLH members insist that they are not against road-related projects but demand that the authorities should innovate and prioritise the conservation of local ecosystems. Their campaign motto is “Road bhi, jhaad bhi” (Roads as well as trees).
Enumeration and geotagging
The NLH-led campaign has demonstrated that geotagging is a valuable mechanism to save trees from being undervalued and erased in the rush for road expansion. In June 2022, they undertook the project of geotagging all the banyans along the 46 km stretch, building an accurate database with their GPS coordinates, a couple of photos of each tree whose circumference was over or within 5 feet, prominent features such as prop roots and condition of branches, among other aspects. It took four days and 20 volunteers to accomplish it. They recorded 915 banyans in the stretch.
The data served as crucial evidence to back their petition. In its responses to the NGT, the NHAI has repeatedly underplayed the banyans’ number and significance. In its January 2023 response, the NHAI stated that there were only 759 banyans, of which 90 per cent were not unique. The geotagged database helped the campaign counter such claims.
The campaign closely monitors the banyans through friends and volunteers and keeps their database updated. “We filed an FIR in 2022 over an illegal felling,” said Natasha Ramarathnam, one of the NGT petitioners. The data is accessible to the public.
The way ahead
Even as the NGT order is being celebrated as a win and a precedent, some are still wary about the fate of the trees as the order has been to “minimise” the loss.
- The Save Banyans of Chevella campaign is a citizens’ initiative to save historic banyan trees along Telangana’s Chevella Road that are threatened by a proposed road-widening project.
- In December 2021, the Nature Lovers of Hyderabad (NLH), the group behind the campaign, filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) challenging the project.
- On November 6, 2023, in a victory for the NLH, the NGT ordered the National Highway Authority of India to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment to minimise the loss of trees.
“Translocation is viable and has to be the last option. However, the NGT order might have shut out that possibility. It has left the fate of the banyans in the hands of MoEFCC and NHAI,” said Uday Krishna Peddireddi, founder of Vata Foundation. Peddireddi too had enumerated the banyans and found 980 along the stretch in 2019. He said that over a hundred have been lost during the COVID-19 lockdowns and plans to count the trees again.
Vata would step in again if felling permissions are granted after an EIA. Peddireddi hopes to convince the NHAI, failing which, the last resort will be petitioning the court.
The NLH members are sceptical about translocation. “Prove us wrong by showing evidence concerning protocols, processes, and success rates of the organisations involved. Such data should be public and open to audits,” Balantrapu said. The NLH campaigners hope for an ideal EIA outcome for the Chevella banyans and are prepared to continue their fight.