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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Save the last boulevard of Mangalore - The story

Once upon a time, not too long ago, Mangalore boasted of many a stretch of roads lined with trees, which not only contributed immensely to its beauty, but also provided clean air for the citizens to breathe, shade for them to enjoy, apart from keeping the temperature under control.  Of course, many a times, due to the sheer callousness of the corporation authorities, the roads themselves, like all other roads under its jurisdiction, were decorated with potholes, making the lives of the motorists quite miserable.

This misery continued for long.  The good, decent citizens of Mangalore suffered quietly and hardly complained.  But due to the efforts of a few individuals and organizations, and their constant efforts, the authorities were forced to act.


To their good fortune, the present Government in the state provided `100 crore to concretize and widen Mangalore roads.  It’s a well-known fact that the builders’ lobby had a great role to play in drawing up a map to identify the roads to be concretized / widened.  Needless to say that in all this, the builders’ interests were always the priority and the citizens’ interests and the ecological fall out was never a consideration.

Sick and tired of unmotorable potholed roads, the idea of concrete roads came as a relief to the harassed citizens and they thought that the felling of trees, many a times indiscriminately was the price they had to pay for progress.  But when felling of trees became evidently unnecessary and rampant, and when they began to realize that the price they were paying for progress was disproportionate to its benefits; they began to raise their voices in protest.

It was also realized that in most cases, the authorities were acting arbitrarily, disregarding norms and procedures, bypassing legal preconditions laid down; and especially with regard to the felling of trees, the rule of obtaining permission from the ‘Tree Officer’, Forest Dept. (which is  a must), was flouted more often than not.

On the Lady Hill – Mannagudda stretch, because people protested, trees were saved and the authorities were even forced to transplant a full grown tree.  In front of Infosys and in Shedigugdda, because people protested, the roads were constructed around the trees.  In front of Saibeen Complex, when people protested, the authorities assured them that 4 trees would be planted in the vicinity behind every tree felled.  This assurance has not been honoured.  The trees in the Kadri Park area, next to the former Snake Park were saved thanks to people’s protest.  Rev. Fr. Leo D’souza is credited with the saving of many trees alongside the court road.

As huge financial benefits are at stake, despite people’s resistance, at the behest of the stakeholders, the authorities continued to bulldoze trees standing in their way.  That someone made millions felling these trees and selling the timber is also a point to be noted.

Then it was the turn of the trees on the last boulevard standing – to be axed……

THE STORY OF THE STRUGGLE TO SAVE THE LAST BOULEVARD OF MANGALORE.

On Aug. 29, 2009, - the people of Mangalore woke up to see concrete median stumps planted all along the road starting from Fr. Muller’s (Kankanady) right up to the Nandigudda circle.  Together, they also saw that trees, numbering 45 were boldly marked.  The median stumps zigzagged on the existing road.  It was evident that the trees were marked for felling.  As the citizens were not informed and as there were no boards announcing what  the authorities intended to do,  (which is a must, legally), alarm bells rang and people spontaneously gathered at Valencia circle, to make sense of what was happening.  In their opinion – the existing road was one of the broadest in Mangalore (apart from being one of the most beautiful, because of the trees), and certainly broad enough to ensure a smooth flow of traffic and felling of trees just to concretize this road was not only uncalled for, but criminal.  So, they decided that they would invite the D.C. (the overseer of the ‘100 Crore Project’) and the Corporation authorities (the project holders), to the spot, to explain.

On Sun., Aug. 30 – people in large numbers once again gathered at the Valencia Circle, at 9 in the morning and waited for the D.C. and the Corporation authorities to arrive.  After a while, the D.C. accompanied by the Mangalore City Corporation Development Consultant (who, we learnt is actually representing the Builders’ lobby and who in effect was dictating the course of the implementation to serve the builders’ interests), arrived.

The D.C. was polite, and in his polished manner was trying to explain the need to broaden the existing road keeping in mind future development.  People assured him that they were not against progress, but voiced their concerns.  ‘Progress at what cost?’ they asked.  They also pointed out that the existing road (without having to cut trees) was as broad, if not broader than the Kankanady-Highland-Falnir-Hampankatta road, on which the traffic was 10 times more, and hence what was the need to broaden the road further?  The people also questioned the wisdom of the authorities in causing long-term and permanent environmental damage by cutting trees (which would never be replaced despite solemn promises), by enticing people with the short term benefits.  The D.C. seemed to see the point and even suggested that the plan could be redrawn to save the trees.

At that point the MCC Dev. Consultant went on the offensive and even challenged the people as to what they could do, because, he said - money power, political power and Government machinery was on their side.  A verbal confrontation ensued, at the end of which, the arrogant MCC Dev. Consultant had to beat a hasty retreat in the face stiff opposition, and the D.C. conceded to the demand of the gathering that they had a right to know and he directed the Dev. Consultant to explain the plan in detail.  As a result, a meeting was fixed.

On Sept. 1, 2009 - Around 300 people gathered at the Roshini Nilaya auditorium, to learn about the plan from the authorities and also to chalk-out the future course of action.  The meeting was chaired by Dr. Olinda Pereira, the respected social worker of Mangalore.

Shri Dharmaraj, the Development Consultant of MCC (who, that day looked very much subdued), explained the plan.  However he failed to convince the gathering as to the need to cut trees.  He also ultimately conceded that the plan could be redesigned to save trees.  Accordingly, the gathering deputed Shri Venkatesh Pai, an architect, to discuss the issue with Shri Dharmaraj, redraw the plan and report back.

In the meantime, a call was given for everyone to gather the next evening in front of Fr. Muller’s, to remove the concrete stumps planted as median marking all along the road, for 2 good reasons -
  1. many motorists, specially 2 wheelers had banged against these and met with accidents, suffering injuries – as these were hardly visible in the dark, because they were neither painted nor any board was put-up warning the motorists of their existence; and –
  2. They were redundant anyway, as the road plan would be redrawn.
The gathering also decided to hold a ‘Press Conference’ to make their view public, and also to invite the general public to join the novel attempt to save trees, namely, ‘Vraksha Bandhan’ (bonding with trees).

On Sept. 2, 2009 - As decided the previous day, people gathered at 6 in the evening in front of Fr. Muller’s, and marched towards Nandigudda knocking off all the concrete median stumps planted in the middle of the Road.  The anger of the people was quite evident in the vehemence with which the stumps were knocked off – using crowbars, stones, pickaxes and even mere hands and legs.  The police who were alerted by the authorities, walked along watching helplessly.  In half an hour all the stumps were gone and those who participated in this protest went home with the satisfaction of having won a round in the fight.  They also resolved to make ‘Vraksha Bandhan’ (our unique symbolic gesture of bonding with trees), a success.

On Sept. 3, 2009 - At 10.30 a.m., the leaders of the movement led by Ms Vidya Dinker, Mr Eric Ozario and Mr Manoj Saldanha, addressed a ‘Press Conference’ at the Press Club, Mangalore.

The press and the electronic media, which was present in large numbers, was briefed about the cause and the course of the struggle and specially about ‘Vraksha Bandhan’ that would be held on Sept.5.

The press and the media, after clarifying a few issues, voiced their support, and as a result, maximum publicity was given to the struggle ‘to save the last boulevard of Mangalore’.

On Sept.4 & 5, 2009 -  4 teams of students and activists, numbering around 20, went round in a door-to-door campaign, distributing hand bills which explained -  1) why trees must be saved; 2) why the price we are paying is disproportionate  to the gains of progress; 3) how the builders’ lobby is utilizing govt. resources (money, political power) to serve their ends with scant regard for laws, norms and people’s needs; 4) instances of the promises that the authorities have made of planting 4 trees (at times even 10) for every tree felled, which were never honoured.

The handbill also called on people to join ‘Vraksha Bandhan’ – to express their love for trees and also to warn the power-drunk authorities to stay away from them.

On Sept. 5, 2009: Vraksha Bandan


‘Vraksha Bandhan’ seems to have caught the imagination of the people.  They gathered in large numbers in front of Fr. Muller’s gate – the appointed place, at the appointed time, 6 p.m.

Eric Ozario explained the innovative concept, the objectives and the procedure.

First – A small banner, with ‘Save Me’ painted on it would be tied, at a height, to the tree. This would symbolize the ‘plea’ of the mute, voiceless, helpless tree – to the people to save it.
 As step 2 – colourful ribbons would be tied around the tree in a gesture symbolising that we value the tree and therefore decorate it with a protective band.
People would then embrace that tree and spend a personal moment with the tree, promising and reassuring the tree – ‘I am there for you.  I shall fight and shout for you and see that they don’t kill you’. 

‘Vraksha Bandhan’ was indeed an emotional experience.  People bonded with every tree on the last boulevard of Mangalore. 

Let us pause for a moment to reflect.  Just because a tree does not react, struggle, fight-back or scream – as all other beings do – man dares to cut trees without any qualms or guilt.  Imagine, if only the tree could cry-out in pain!  For the sake of imagination take the scream of a pig while being slaughtered, multiply that by at least a 1000 times and then imagine the volume of the sound the tree would produce!  Would man have dared to cut even a branch, leave alone a tree?  Thank God they cannot strangle a tree or hang it, to kill it.   Yes, the authorities have taken recourse to the heinous method of poisoning trees, in the dead of the night, in order to avoid resistance while cutting them - elsewhere in Mangalore.

Just a thought….. May be ‘Vraksha Bandhan’ should be conducted every year….. Maybe people around the world should bond with the trees around them by doing ‘Vraksha Bandhan’……just a thought.

The Authorities hit back:

The growing momentum of the ‘Save the Last Boulevard of Mangalore’ agitation seemed to have rattled the authorities who until then had never encountered such consistent resistance.  The Mangalore public has long been considered ‘passive’ and ‘harmless’ by them and therefore the authorities always had their way, going about ‘developing’ Mangalore at the behest of the builders’ lobby, with scant regard for people’s opinion or involvement, many a times bulldozing rules, norms and regulations and in the bargain, causing long term damage for the short term gains of a handful.

The mayor went on the offensive.  He convened a Press Conference and declared that there were no plans to broaden the existing road and hence there was no danger to the trees.  He said that a few ‘anti-progressive’, ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-social’ elements were trying to whip-up opposition to the grand plans for progress of the city that the authorities were trying to implement, speedily.  He threatened to arrest and imprison the leaders of this movement.

At the same time, a band of young men, appointed for the purpose, went round the vicinity distributing handbills calling for people to support the authorities and defeat those who were trying to protect trees.  They argued that trees were a small price to pay for the benefits that will accrue out of the plans that the authorities had for development.  The handbills went to the ridiculous extent of saying that the trees were a hazard to human lives as they could fall at any time and kill them and therefore pleaded to ‘save humans from the trees’!

And then a procession was staged, apparently by the mayor’s party, in which people from outside the area were mobilized in a show of strength.  Loud speakers blaring, drums beating, people walking and also in cars, proceeded from Fr. Muller’s gate towards the Nandigudda Circle where the mayor waited to receive their memorandum.  The memorandum pleaded with the authorities not be cowed down by the ‘regressive trouble makers’ and assured the authorities that they have their permission to cut all trees for the sake of road broadening and concretization.  The Mayor thanked them for their support, pledged to continue the good work of development come what may, and also promised action against the ‘trouble makers’.
  
The Legal Battle:

Realising that time was running out for the hapless trees, as the authorities were on the offensive and hell-bent, that honouring the promise made to the trees at the ‘Vraksha Bandhan’, Shri Eric Ozario, Ms Vidya Dinker and Shri Manoj Saldanha, through an efficient, young advocate Smt. Suma R. Nayak (herself an animal rights activist), filed a suit in the court of the Civil Judge (Jr. Dn), Mangalore, D.K. – seeking ‘a permanent prohibitory injunction’ restraing the defendants No.1 and 2, their agents, servants, officers or any person claiming through them, from felling/cutting/trimming any of the 45 trees standing along the side of the road, without following the due process/procedure of law, provided under ‘Karnataka Preservation Trees Act’.  The defendants in the suit were –

  1. The commissioner, Mangalore city
  2. The Executive Engineer, Corporation,
  3. The tree officer, Karnataka Forest Dept.,
  4. The state Govt. of Karnataka.

On 08-09-2009, the honourable court was kind enough to register the suit, issue notices to the defendants and also order the defendants to maintain status quo until further orders.

The court order came as great relief to the movement and a well-deserved reprieve to the innocent trees.  The court proceedings are still on and the restraining order still in place.

‘Friends of the Earth’, the organization spearheading this movement to ‘Save The Last Boulevard of Mangalore’, is ever indebted to Smt. Suma R. Nayak – for filing the suit, for fighting it so efficiently and above all, not charging a paisa for her professional services.  An ardent environmentalist, advocate Shri Guruprasad, will take-up the legal battle on our behalf, from here onwards.

On Sept.9, 2009: A public meeting was organized at the Roshini Nilaya auditorium, at 6 in the evening.  From the jam-packed gathering it was evident that public interest and support was growing by the day, for the cause.

The meeting was called, for 2 good reasons –
  1. to inform the general public about the temporary legal victory (which was received with great joy and abandon), and
  2. To present the re-drawn plan and options, the result of the lengthy discussions our representative, Architect Shri Venkatesh Pai had with the MCC Dev. Consultant.
What transpired at the public meeting and the decisions arrived at, are all contained in a letter dated 10-09-2009 addressed to the deputy commissioner by the residents of Kankanady, Valencia and Jeppu – which was sent under direction from the gathering

At our meeting of the evening of 09-09-2009, Mr Venkatesh Pai presented his report consequent to his detailed discussions and consideration of options with the City Corporation’s consultants.  We deliberated and arrived at the decision that we have no objections if the MCC is working on making of a 2 lane road for the present.  We however expect the authorities to involve us, the citizens, in the entire scope of the project, and come back to us before embarking on even the planning of the proposed 4 and 6 laning of the same road as mentioned to us by Mr Dharmaraj. 


We wish to formally bring to your notice the following issues discussed and the decisions taken at the meeting of 09-09-09:
  1. After discussions with Mr Dharmaraj, Mr V Pai has presented the various options to us (4 in no.) which we have discussed at length after which we have arrived at the following conclusions-
  2. We have all agreed to the 2-lane concretization plan – on the existing bitumen road, so that it does not affect any of the trees by the side.
  3. We would like the MCC or its consultant body for infrastructure works to undertake marking of the centre line of the proposed 2-lane road on site, so the marking and its implication for the trees can be explained to us so we can assure ourselves that no trees are to be cut.  We request the fixing of a joint meeting at the site where our committee will be present to check the marking.
  4. We would like the time schedule to be worked out for this project, announced/shared with the citizens of Mangalore.  This schedule should be strictly adhered to.  This will minimize the extreme hardship being faced by citizens wherever road projects are in progress in Mangalore today.
  5. Citizen’s safety and convenience should be given top priority.  It has been observed that MCC’s contractors do not observe the necessary and mandatory standard safety procedures required for such projects.  MCC engineers unfortunately are indifferent and blind to these deliberate and serious lapses in common safety measures.  This is the cause of the numerous mishaps and accidents involving pedestrians and motorists that have happened on every road project in Mangalore.  We have brought this up with you during your site inspection of 30-09-09 since we do not want the same to repeat in this project or in other future projects.
  6. In view of the above mentioned issues, we request that a signboard be put up at the site in a prominent and visible location displaying vital information about the project as mentioned below.  This is a standard practice in all projects and may be followed here too.
  •  §  The name of the project.
  • §  The name, address and contact numbers of the contractor of the project.
  • §  The name and contact numbers of the supervising engineer of the MCC. 
  • §  The start date and completion date of the project. 
  • §  Estimated cost of the project. 

This will help both the MCC and the public, ensure awareness and accountability, encourage quality and will be beneficial to the project.  (After we brought this up with MCC consultants, we are happy to note that a couple of boards and safety tapes have now come up on the Valencia road site but we expect the boards to carry all the above details, not just the name of the contractor firm.)
  1. We have now been told that phase 2, i.e. widening of the 2 lane to make the 4 lane road will take place within the next 3-5 years and phase 3, i.e. widening of the 4 lane to make the 6 lane road will take place in about 20 years.  We demand that meetings be called at location at the time of planning and executing these proposed phase of works and issues be put before the stakeholders/citizens residing in the area for discussion and feedback.
  2. Mr Dharmaraj informed us that the roads under construction today are said to be as per the road hierarchy plan of the Mangalore Urban Development Authority (MUDA).  This is an important document about which most citizens of Mangalore are unaware, since it has not been presented to them by the planning authority.  We suggest that this plan be made available to the public at the very least through the MCC/MUDA/DC DK websites in the interest of transparency and to aid public response to such plans of great import to Mangaloreans.
Immediately thereafter, the leaders of ‘Friends of the Earth’ organized 2 meetings of the land owners owning properties on both sides of the boulevard and placed before them the 3 phase road widening plan of the Corporation.  All of them were gratified to note that in the First Phase (2 lane); only 2 or 3 trees need to go.  But they were alarmed to realize that if the 2nd phase of 4 laning is implemented as per the plan, all the trees would be removed and if the 3rd phase of 6 laning was executed, then 10 to 15 feet of private property, specially of Catholic institutions along the boulevard, such as - Roshini Nilaya,  Retreat House, Gerosa School, Seminary, St. Joseph’s workshop, Infant Mary’s School, St. Anthony’s Ashram etc., would be encroached upon and that 2 schools, Gerosa and Infant Mary’s, would be demolished .  Many saw saffron in these plans.


Everyone pledged their support in the fight to save the trees and also promised to do everything possible to protect their interests.

In the meantime, the work of the First Phase (2 lane concretization) began.

And even when the restraining order of the court was in effect, on 12-12-2009, on a Saturday afternoon, people got a clue that preparations were afoot to cut the trees.  The presence of Police in large numbers confirmed their worst fears.

What is to be noted here is that most illegal activities are undertaken on late Saturday afternoons, so that, by the time the aggrieved approach the court of law, earliest by 11a.m on Monday, the damage is done.

‘The Friends of the Earth’ immediately got into action.  They filed a complaint at the Pandeshwar Police Station, attaching a copy of the court order, and also went and met the Superintend of Police.  By evening, the police force was withdrawn and nobody ventured to cut the trees that day.

Later on it was learnt that the Corporation had sought the permission of the Tree Officer to cut 5 trees, which was granted.  However, as they had not got the permission of the court, in the face of timely resistance, they had to refrain.

On 15-12-2009, Eric Ozario, Vidya Dinker and Manoj Saldanha, once again filed an application in the court, requesting it to stay the permission granted by the Tree Officer without giving the appellants an opportunity to be heard.  The court however rejected this appeal and permitted the cutting of 5 trees.  The Corporation, subsequently, cut 6 trees – one more than permitted (the 6th totally unnecessary) and also chopped off many braches of many other trees, without permission.  The court has been informed of this high-handedness.


Now the 2 lane concretizing work is complete.   There are no signs that pavements will ever be done. Nor the drains. Nor the difference in levels between the approach roads and the concrete road be ever addressed.  At the very beginning of the first monsoons, the shoddy, shabby, hurriedly-done- concretization is manifesting itself in pits and cracks.  The citizens remain as harassed, except where concretization is proper, motorists experience a smooth drive.  The greatest, consolation is that, thanks to people’s resistance, most of the trees are still standing.
  
The fight is not over yet.  It is feared that as soon as the court lifts the restraining order, the authorities will go about the business of massacring trees.  We wonder what we would need to do then, to save these trees.   We will not give-up this fight.  However, we rely on your support to win it.

The story of the trees along the Last Boulevard of Mangalore is no different from that of any tree, anywhere in the world.  More and more trees are sacrificed at the altar of ‘progress’. The life-giving tree is in danger!  Our lives are in danger!   Let us save ourselves before it’s too late!

As narrated to me by Mr Eric Ozario and Ms Vidya Dinker, the leaders of this movement. You can support this cause by signing a petition ment to save the trees.To sign the petition click here