Activists in Telangana have alleged that over a hundred banyan trees have been deliberately set on fire on the Hyderabad-Chevella-Bijapur highway, after sustained protests stalled a road expansion project on the same stretch last year.
In a petition on Change.org, the activists wrote to Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and demanded urgent action, to ensure that the trees were preserved.
"We commend your efforts to increase the green cover in Telangana with your flagship programme - Telangana Ku Haritha Haram - but we also request you to please safeguard our existing green cover, especially our old heritage trees," the petition states.
The activists said that they inspected a stretch of road from Moinabad to Manneguda, where hundreds of banyan and other trees line the road. "We counted a total of 941 banyans, of which 101 trees had sustained varying degrees of burns. Of these, 21 trees had moderate burns, 64 were severely burnt and 16 had toppled or died from severe burns. We urge concerned citizens to visit the Chevella stretch and note the damage," a statement from activists said.
"Last year too we had noted these fires, and lodged a complaint at the Chevella police station. But this year, they are widespread. We have also observed that trees had toppled after repeated burning and injuries sustained were never left to heal and unfortunately many trees have succumbed," it added.
On June 5, the activists had even written to Telangana's Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, R Sobha, stating, "We are writing to request that you investigate and take immediate action against the miscreants destroying government property and our natural heritage. We hope you will ensure the safety of the banyans and put an end to such mindless acts in the future."
Activists suspect that local farmers are setting fire to the trees as their land rates - which shot up when the highway expansion was proposed last year - could drastically fall again if the project is permanently shelved. "A real estate lobby is also involved," sources said.
A possible solution
While the petition and representations highlight the issue, there still needs to be a concrete solution, says Uday Krishna from the Vata Foundation, a green NGO.
"We can't stop the construction of the highway because that is not a solution. Diverting the route of the highway is also a very expensive affair. Additionally, banyans grow in all directions and their growth is being restricted by the highway on one side and by farmlands on the other," he says.
When the issue had surfaced last year, Uday and his foundation had volunteered to translocate the trees. Translocation involves the trees being pruned and uprooted before being carried to another location and being re-planted.
"Translocation is a good solution. It is a bit expensive but there are many people from civil society willing to come forward to donate. The government has many areas where the trees can be re-planted. It is also a crucial time as the success rate for trees translocated during monsoon is very high," he adds.
Last year, the state government in Telangana and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) had to put on hold the proposed plan to expand the highway by axing 300 banyan trees, after several citizens protested the move.