The media is full of reports of trees being cut in college campuses across the city. Presidency, Ethiraj, Stella Maris and Stanley Medical Colleges have all reported incidents of tree-felling and these have been received with a sense of outrage by students, teachers and the general public. To be tree-friendly is in human nature and any cutting down of the green cover is met with protests. What is often forgotten is that lopping and pruning of trees is a necessity and if that is done, such wholesale cutting can be avoided. And if care is taken while trees are planted, and this is done according to a plan, such problems need never occur. Unfortunately, most campuses have no such plans in place and the same applies to our Governments as well.

You need to only look at the old photographs of historic buildings in our city to realise that trees were planted to a plan, keeping in mind the façade and vista of the structure they were supposed to frame. This ensured that the edifice was visible and the trees were well spaced, thereby ensuring easy maintenance and protection of both – the buildings and the foliage. This has long been given the go by and it would be no exaggeration to state that most of the so-called green campuses in the city have, in reality, just uncontrolled vegetation. This may be all right in vast precincts such as Madras Christian College, but when such growth is allowed in relatively smaller campuses, it results in several long-term problems. Tree roots can cause cracks in buildings, leaves can choke drains leading to water seepage, and branches can damage grilles and windows. This is precisely what has happened in most campuses, where much of the vegetation is due to seeds from bird droppings sprouting at various spots, including on the buildings themselves.

Tree-planting drives have also added to the problem. These are often done for the sake of the publicity they generate. A vast number of saplings are planted, with no long-term plan in place. After the initial hype, the plants are forgotten and those that survive grow by themselves, going wild and adding to the problems of campuses that do not have maintenance staff in any case. The suitability of the plant specimens to Chennai conditions is also overlooked. There was a time when tamarind and neem trees were the most common varieties to be seen in our city. These were hardy and could withstand cyclonic weather as well. But now with exotic trees being the norm, much damage is caused. Varieties such as the gul mohur, though lovely to look at, are the first to fall in the face of strong winds.

The Government, which through its agencies is responsible for the trees in public areas, is no less a culprit. Here too, alien species have been planted, thereby causing mishaps, especially during the rainy season. And the pruning of trees has been more or less forgotten. This has resulted in wild growth, which often obscures traffic lights and signals. Branches sometimes lean on to the road space, thereby remaining potential for accidents. These could have been avoided had there been a proper action plan for tree planting and, more importantly, maintenance.

It is now over a year since the Government of Tamil Nadu promised an Urban Areas Preservation of Trees Act. Such legislation is already in place in Karnataka, Delhi and Maharashtra. The Act would ensure the creation of a Tree Authority which would create a proper policy for planting and caring for trees. As of now, this idea is on paper and has not moved forward. But with the Heritage Act not having moved beyond legislation stage, is this likely to fare any better?