The National Highways Authority of Indiaâ€™s (NHAI) plan to construct a 46 km stretch of road from the Telangana Police Academy in the suburbs of Hyderabad, to Manneguda in Vikarabad district, is gaining steam. The technical feasibility report is being worked upon and the works are expected to begin soon. This stretch is part of the Hyderabad-Bijapur National Highway. Though the project was initiated in 2019, following widespread protest by environmentalists and lack of funds, the project was put off until recently, when it began gaining momentum after a recent sanction by the Union government.
Speaking to TNM, Chevella MP Dr Ranjith Reddy said, â€śThe NHAI has handed over the money to the respective collectors. This will be given to all those who have parted with their land for the project. I spoke to NHAI three days ago. They are presently working on the technical feasibility report, following which the work will begin in another few weeks.â€ť TNM has learnt from sources that the technical feasibility report also includes the sanction from the Tree Protection Committee (TPC), headed by the Hyderabad district Forest Officer. The TPC has asked for details about the number of trees that fall in the jurisdiction of the project and the dimensions of the trees. The TPC is yet to receive this report. Once the report is submitted, the TPC will take around 15 days to inspect the said area.
The project, which was initiated in 2019, hit a roadblock due to stiff opposition from citizens and environmentalists. The stalled project received the Parliamentary Standing Finance Committeeâ€™s approval in August 2021. NHAI had sought bids for the project and the tenders were won by Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited (MEIL), a company that is doing several irrigation projects in Telangana and other development projects across the country. The NHAI presented the Letter of Award (LOA) for the tender to MEIL. The four-lane road is being constructed at a total cost of Rs 956 crore, of which Rs 786 crore has already been allocated for the roadâ€™s construction. A total of 18 underpasses are being planned on this route.
Why are citizens and environmentalists protesting?
While infrastructure development is important, the impact it can have on the environment is sometimes distressing. The road-widening project, a part of the Union governmentâ€™s infrastructure development plan, is estimated to affect around 9,000 trees including an estimated 1,000 banyan trees that canopy the route. The existing road is a 7-meter-wide two-lane road. It is a narrow road and with increase in vehicles in recent years, traffic jams and accidents have become a common occurrence on this stretch. The locals in this area have been demanding a wider, better road to cater to the needs of the people who commute through this route. Shorter travel time and better connectivity can be established between Hyderabad and Vikarabad once the new highway is constructed.
A civic action group called Nature Lovers of Hyderabad, which has city-based environmentalists, cyclists, birdwatchers, conservationists and tree lovers as members, have been protesting against the idea of axing trees to make way for the highway. They too understand the need for a new highway but say better ways of expansion can be taken up by not destroying the existing trees on this stretch. According to them, many of the existing trees were planted during the last Nizamâ€™s period which lasted from 1911 to 1948. However, axing of the trees isnâ€™t the only issue. Environmentalists say that the current project plan has not assessed damage to the environment when laying such highways. The guidelines were formulated to prevent disturbance to the immediate environment which includes natural tanks, streams, trees and forests
The Change.org petition started by Uday Krishna from Vata Foundation
In 2019, when the project was initiated, a petition was filed on change.org by Uday Krishna from Vata Foundation, an NGO working closely to save trees by translocation in the urban space. Udayâ€™s petition was to the Project Director, NHAI urging him to save 900+ Banyan trees on the Hyderabad Chevella road by translocating them. This petition garnered over 35,000 signatures and was closed after change.org representatives handed over the petition to the project director of NHAI.
Uday Krishna and a Change.org representative handing over the signed petition to the project director of NHAI
Another petition was started in 2019 by Anand Vishwanadha, a member of Nature Lovers Group urging Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and other officials from the concerned departments to intervene to protect and preserve the biodiversity of the region. The petition which had garnered around 38,000 signatures, today has over 62,000 signatures. The main demand of the group is to replan the project in order to save the banyan trees. The group believes the trees can be saved by retaining them as medians with road expansion on either side
An image of the trees on the way to Vikarabad (Image Credit: Uday Krishna)
The loss of biodiversity that these trees offer is also a major concern. Mudimyal and Kandlapally, two of the few remaining grassland habitats on NH-163, play host to many animals specific to this habitat, including the migrating Harriers that winter here and the now rare Tawny Eagles that nest on these trees. The Tawny Eagles are listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Those protesting believe if the banyans go, the entire ecosystems will die and the heritage will disappear, further leading to a collapse of local economies.
Uday Krishna from Vata Foundation, an organisation that has translocated over 2,500 trees including several mature banyan trees says nature will eventually grow back if given time. â€śThe grassland habitat and the ecosystem will build back once the trees are translocated instead of being axed. It is only a matter of time when the trees will once again be home to the migratory birds. Infact, the trees once moved to a better location, from the highway where it now is, will grow even better with more space around to expand to.â€ť
One of the many Banyan trees (Image Courtesy: Uday Krishna)
NHAI assures minimal damage to trees
The National Highways Authority of India in an affidavit filed with the National Green Tribunal in March 2022 had stated that they will minimise damage to trees while four-laning the Hyderabad-Manneguda stretch on National Highway 163. In the affidavit which TNM has accessed, the NHAI has assured that only â€ślimited treesâ€ť will be cut while others would be translocated. The entire stretch, which is around 46.4 km long, is home to trees like albizia, peltophorum, gulmohar, kassod, neem, banyan, peepal and rain trees.
The term â€ślimited treesâ€ť used by NHAI in their response is very abstract. The NHAI conveniently skirted the question about how many trees would be felled to make way for the new project â€” a question asked in the petition filed with the National Green Tribunal by the three members of the Nature Lovers group. In a follow up response, the petitioners have questioned the number of trees to be felledâ€“ again in their affidavit, â€śIn Para 4 of the Status report filed by the 2nd respondent (NHAI), it is mentioned that there are about 2,500 numbers of trees in the non-forest locations of which 688 are banyan trees which are standing between Moinabad and Manneguda. The report further states that the existing trees may be felled in bare minimum depending upon the site requirement. However, it is not specifically stated how many number of trees will be cut while considering the road safety of the road commuters.â€ť
A photo of a translocated tree (Image Courtesy: Tejah Balantrapu)
While the NHAI in its affidavit has promised translocation of trees, members of environmental groups believe that translocation is not really an option. â€śTranslocation is not an option for large, mature trees because of poor chances of survival, as observed during earlier attempts,â€ť said Anand Vishwanadha, in his change.org petition which has now garnered over 62,000 signatures in support of the save Chevella Banyans campaign. However, Uday Krishna who has vast experience of translocating trees across states feels though it is always considered the last option, the best option now in this case is to translocate the trees instead of seeing them being cut down. Speaking to TNM, he said, â€śThe government has done enough paperwork to ensure the project is carried out and even if people move the Supreme Court, the project can only be delayed and not stopped. My focus is very clear, the trees should not be cut. We had done a change.org petition in 2019, before the present campaign was started by the members of the Nature Lovers Group. We had garnered over 35,000 signatures. The same was submitted to the concerned NHAI authorities and this helped stall the project. Now that the project is again going forward, I have proposed a workable plan of translocating the trees instead of cutting them.â€ť
Uday agrees that there is an absolute need to expand the road from Hyderabad to Manneguda. However, he feels planning an alternate route would have been ideal. He also says that an alternate route isnâ€™t really an option for the government in this case due to very high land prices which makes land acquisition an expensive task.
â€śWe are being very selfish in wanting to retain the trees just because they have a nice arch and give a good feeling when you drive through this road. Nobody thinks from the treeâ€™s perspective. Banyan trees struggle to grow on highways. They are cut from both sides- by the farmers and by the electricity department whichever side they grow. Banyan trees need aerial roots to touch down. The locals are burning down these trees, they really want the road to be widened because of the numerous accidents that take place on this stretch. This is why it is impossible and not a viable option to keep Banyan trees as medians. Their branches need to grow wide, and keeping them as a median or on roadsides is not an option. Translocation of trees is not always the best solution but in this case it is at least better than the trees being axed,â€ť Uday added.
Environmentalists highlight loophole in rules
Though the highway is from Hyderabad to Bijapur in Karnataka, the main project has been divided into smaller projects. Many feel this is to exploit a loophole in the laid down rules. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006 states that any highway upgradation thatâ€™s over 30 km long needs an EIA to be done. However, an amendment later increased this minimum length to 100 km. Speaking to TNM, Tejah Balantrapu, who is part of the civic action group Nature Lovers Hyderabad working to save the banyan trees in Chevella said, â€śThe present project stops at Manneguda, around 46 km from Hyderabad. Why does it stop at Manneguda? There are many such projects where NHAI has stopped below 100 km. Can any road that NHAI deems a highway become a NH-grade one? If NHAI deems a road to be a national highway does it mean all the preliminary work to check alignment, impact etc can be bypassed? What is happening is the retrofitting of the law.â€ť
Tejah says that people assume that a road expansion is not possible without destruction. In their petition, the group listed out alternative plans that can be adopted. These alternate plans include making the trees as medians with roads on either side, or re-plan this part of the route.
Another Banyan tree on this route (Image Credit: Lakshmi Prabhala)
According to Uday from Vata Foundation, what the department has done is a way to circumvent the present rules. â€śThe government has put in place a plan wherein legally they can go ahead with the project. It all boils down to the decision we have to take. Is the highwayâ€™s purpose justified or not? If the highway is not required, then well and good. If it has to come, then we need to save the trees. Translocation might be the best option at this moment as the weather is also favourable in the monsoon season,â€ť said Uday.
Now that the project has got the required sanctions and the feasibility report is being worked on, the beginning of the project is just days away. MP Ranjith Reddy said the new highway will transform Chevella and increase the land prices in Vikarabad district because of better connectivity. However, even as the project will transform Vikarabad, it remains to be seen what lies ahead for the 1,000-odd banyan trees that today line the road towards Chevvala.