Eighty-five-year-old S G Neginhal’s house in Basaveshwara Nagar overlooks a medium-sized Queen’s Flower tree, commonly known as Pride of India. He planted it almost two decades ago, as part of a pioneering urban forestry drive that blessed Bangalore with its famous tree cover. Between 1982 and 1987, Neginhal, then a forest officer tasked with greening Bangalore, planted 15 lakh tall saplings and nurtured them into the green lungs of the city that they are today. Over the weekend, addressing a gathering at Neralu, a first-of-its-kind crowdfunded festival organised by tree lovers, artists and researchers that aims to connect average Bangaloreans with their precious trees, Neginhal spoke about the “golden period” of tree planting in Bangalore. The event, held under the shade of Cubbon Park’s green giants, drew crowds through the day with historical, cultural and ecological stories about trees, presented in the form of photography, tree walks, art, talks and films.
“Except for the old localities of Chamarajpet, Malleshwaram and Basavanagudi, much of the city was bereft of trees,” Neginhal reminisces in an interview. “Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, Vijaynagar, Mahalakshmipuram and Hebbal were all barren. There was a lot of construction going on at the time, a great influx of people into the city and companies coming up everywhere,” he says.
In 1981, the then Chief Minister Gundu Rao, alarmed by the disappearing tree cover in the newer areas, entrusted the Forest Department with a massive tree planting exercise. Neginhal was uprooted from the green belt of Thirthahalli and assigned to the arid urban landscape of Bangalore, where, as he would soon learn, nothing grew easy. The Holstein cows that roamed the streets ate up saplings, and low tree guards fashioned from tar drums or expensive ones made of concrete were not the answer. Neginhal is credited with designing a low-cost tree guard using just four wooden posts encircled by chicken-mesh. He set up a dozen nurseries across the city, each stocked with over one crore tall saplings — tall, so they would not be eaten by cows. With an able team assisting him, he planted over 150 species of trees, selected carefully as per the urban topography and the needs of the residents.
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The country had never seen an urban forestry exercise of this scale before. The project won the Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra award and urban tree planting made its way into Five Year Plans. “Great people like Mirza Ismail planted trees along the avenues of Bangalore in the 1930s. Several roads in Malleshwaram for instance are green today thanks to him. But that was the end of it. Bangaloreans have always been great tree lovers — they planted flowering trees within their large compounds — but no one took up tree planting along the roads,” Neginhal says.
In the early ‘80s, with Neginhal’s efforts, a city that was sleeping awoke to the possibility of streets strewn with flowers and cool shade along its avenues. He did not plant blindly — his staff went from door to door and asked residents which tree they would like in front of their homes. “Some wanted trees with sweet-smelling flowers, others wanted beautiful foliage. It was important to involve the public to make them feel the trees were their own,” he says. Giving away free saplings at local tree banks set up for this purpose was one way to involve citizens. There was another. Neginhal invited local VIPs — MLAs, corporators, journalists, merchants — to plant saplings. He also bestowed upon them the title of tree wardens and they were made responsible for the health of the saplings in their area. “Soon, corporators were lining up at my office asking me to help them improve the look of their neighbourhood,” he says.
The initiative won people’s hearts, but it was also extremely scientific. Neginhal has since written several books on city trees — they are treatises on urban planting techniques, comparing the merits of straight, dwarf and sprawling habits, and recommending species to be planted along streets with overhead wires and in crematoriums.
“Even if trees are being felled in Bangalore today on the pretext of development, my trees are everywhere. I don’t have to go to Cubbon Park to see them,” Neginhal says. “When I go shopping or take a walk, anywhere in the city, I wonder at how they have grown so large.”