From around midnight on 30 June, into the early hours of 1 July, 15 residents-turned-activists watched as Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) workers ran electric saws through trees flanking Sankey tank in Bangalore’s Malleswaram. The group, subdued by the heavy police presence, could only offer some verbal protest.

The residents and activists regrouped in the afternoon. Twelve protesters who lay on the ground near the trees, trying to stop the BBMP team, were detained. They were released later in the evening; felling was stopped after a court stay order. By then, the BBMP team had felled 17 of the 19 trees it had planned to bring down. In all, 70 trees are earmarked for felling on this stretch.

Meenakshi Bharath, a resident of Malleswaram, was forced to watch helplessly in the early hours of 1 July. “They had announced the auction (the wood is sold immediately to timber merchants) would take place on 1 July and instead stole in at that strange hour. There were only 15 of us and around 150 of them, including police," she says.

Green signal: (above) Workers chop a tree on Sankey Road; and activists protest Bangalore’s vanishing green cover. Photographs by S Radhakrishna/Karnataka Photo News

The 17 trees felled were fruit-bearing ones, including four jamun and two jackfruit trees; they were auctioned for 3 lakh. Jahnavi Pai, ecologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree), who has been mapping trees in Malleswaram, found that many residents remember the trees along the tank as children, half a century ago. “More importantly, trees like the two species of Ficus, jamun and tamarind support a lot of biodiversity like fruit- and insect-eating birds," says Pai, adding that the trees form a connect for many residents.

Bharath and five others filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka high court on 1 July, questioning the plan to cut around 19 trees along Sankey Tank. For many, it’s not about one road, but the entire city. Some believe countries across the world made the mistake of thinking road widening would solve traffic problems. It didn’t. Bangalore, they say, should learn from these mistakes.

One big-ticket early protest was in 1998 when a portion of the city’s landmark lung space, Cubbon Park, was denotified for commercial use. “There were protests every day for more than a month and signed petitions by thousands of people," says Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the Environment Support Group which led the Save Cubbon Park Campaign. The park was saved, and since then the city has seen several attempts to save its green cover. “It is an effort to reclaim public space, that which rightfully belongs to citizens," says Saldanha.

Ashish Verma, associate faculty at the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation, and Urban Planning (Cistup) and assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), says that while the city needs an immediate solution to congestion, road widening is merely a “supply side measure" which may allow for better flow of traffic for a year or two at most. “The roads will fill up and we will be back to square one," he says.

What then is the solution? Verma, like many others, believes the answer lies in public transport. “If a road transports 17,000 people in private vehicles per hour per kilometre, the same road space can transport 40,000 people if they travelled by bus, and 70,000 by train," he says. Bangalore does have a Metro rail route in the making, and it’s hoped that this will help take cars off roads and make further road widening unnecessary. But the first phase of the project has missed three deadlines so far.

Verma believes the solution lies with the government, given that Bangalore is a young city where buying more cars per household is aspirational. “The benefit of taking a private vehicle is higher in convenience; if the cost of this convenience is increased by slapping taxes and at the same time public transport is made more accessible and easy, people will automatically switch," he says.

Elected by the BBMP, the deputy mayor of the city, S. Harish, does not wholly agree: “All this looks good theoretically, but we have tried it all. We reached out to many companies and have organized ‘Bus Day’ every day to encourage young people to use buses and advertised heavily to encourage car pooling. I don’t see any change." Bangalore, he adds, has more than four million private vehicles, and 10,000-15,000 new vehicles are being registered every month. “It is a big city that needs wide roads. Let us plant new trees so future generations can benefit just like we have from our ancestors," Harish argues.

An urban issues researcher and faculty member at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, H.S. Sudhira, and 70 other academicians submitted a public statement to the BBMP soon after the Malleswaram protest. He says: “I found in my study, done between 2000 and 2006, that Bangalore has grown by 20 sq. km in built-up area, which means that around 30 sq. km of green cover and open space has been lost." He adds that though it is scientifically too short a time to ascribe any side effect to the loss of green cover, worldwide it has led to increased temperatures, pollution and associated diseases such as lung ailments. “The trends are definitely strong enough to point us towards stopping the chopping," he says.

It’s not just residents of Bangalore who are suffering. M.B. Krishna, an ornithologist, describes a Bangalore where more than a quarter of the city was green, and which had ample space for birds. “In fact, there was a survey in the 1990s, done by Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), of around 600 sq. km, including Bangalore city, that showed the area consisted of 5% wetland and 15% wooded land. This 20% combined housed 66% of the bird life in the area," says Krishna. He recalls a time when the administration too was responsive. “When I was 16, there was a plan to introduce boating in the Lalbagh lake. I wrote a letter to the chief minister (R. Gundu Rao) that many birds would be affected if the project were to take off. A few days later, I received a letter from the CM’s office saying my grievance had been sent to the director of horticulture, who met me, consulted with experts, and the whole idea was cancelled," says Krishna.

It’s very different now. “That there’s need for a large-scale public protest reflects the decadence of the government. Residents have to come on the streets to be heard, and that is sad," he says.