Proper Road Design Can Save Trees on Ganeshkhind Road

Impact of Road Widening

As traffic levels soar in the city, roads get congested, leading to demands from various quarters - the traffic police, elected representatives, PMC planners and engineers and even the public - for road widening. Road widening is routinely marked in the Development Plan, in anticipation of growth in traffic. Eventually budgets are allocated and once land acquisition procedures (both time-consuming and very expensive) are completed, the widening of the road commences. There are two fundamental issues with this approach though - without any restraint on vehicle growth, soon the widened road also gets congested. And in the process of road widening, trees - often old and big trees along the roadside - get cut in the hundreds. In fact the road department is responsible for most tree cutting in the city. More traffic and less trees is a double recipe for increasing pollution, GHG emissions and heat island effects.

Transport experts have long dismissed road widening as a way to solve congestion. Instead they recommend promoting walking, cycling and public transport and vehicle restraint measures.

The Ganeshkhind road saga

Ganeshkhind road is an old city road, one which helped connect the Pune Station to the Pune University, which was once the British Governor's residence. It was lined by majestic banyan trees, whose canopy covered the entire road. As traffic grew, the road was widened and hundreds of these magnificent trees were axed. As traffic continued to grow, flyovers were added, and the wonderful fountain at the University chowk was removed. But traffic has just kept growing. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) planned under the JnNURM scheme was never completed, though footpaths and even a cycle track were added during the Commonwealth Youth Games.

Currently the Shivajinagar-Hinjewadi Metro line is being constructed along the road and ideally should alleviate the traffic congestion. Despite this another round of road widening is being undertaken, at the behest of the Deputy CM and Guardian Minister for Pune, Mr. Ajit Pawar. The road is being widened from 36 meters to a whopping 45 meters.

Cutting Trees, the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Tree Act and the High Court PIL

As expected the Road Department applied for cutting 192 trees on a small stretch from the University junction to the Reserve Bank of India premises (about a kilometre and a half). The “Tree Act” defines a very specific procedure for cutting any tree in the city, be it a private party or Government entity. Every city has a “Tree Authority” to whom an application has to be made, giving reasons as to why trees need to be cut. The public is given a chance to object to the proposal and give suggestions to avoid or reduce this. After hearing all sides, the Tree Authority then allows or denies permission to cut the trees. It may order for some trees to be transplanted and also require “compensatory” planting to be undertaken.

In September, 2023 though the Tree Authority (who happens to be the Municipal Commissioner) took the drastic decision to allow tree cutting on Ganeshkhind road without hearing peoples’ objections. Parisar along with activists Ameet Singh and Hema Chari decided to challenge this in the Bombay High Court, which came down heavily on the PMC for flouting the law and ordered that the process needed to be redone. Unfortunately, before the Court could give its decision the PMC had already cut 93 trees, some very large ones.

What is the demand?

The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) in 2017 developed Urban Street Design Guidelines. These Guidelines incorporate the idea that you cannot solve congestion by providing more road space and instead encourage street designs that allocate more space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. It also ensures that space is separately allocated for various other street usages like bus stops, signages, street lights, signboards and importantly trees and other greenery. Where possible space is also recommended for street vendors and public uses like benches, water fountains and decorative installations. In 2022 the Indian Road Congress (IRC) also published an updated version of “Pedestrian Guidelines” which also has these recommendations. The IRC Guidelines are actually mandated by law and binding on the city (or any agency that designs, constructs or maintains roads).

These guidelines recommend a wide footpath, as much as 6.5 meters on a road 45 meters wide. The footpath is supposed to have a “pedestrian zone”, a completely unobstructed walkway along with a “multi-utility zone” (MUZ) for the various other street usages, including space for trees.

What we are demanding is that the PMC follow these guidelines, which will have various benefits. First, we will get a nice wide footpath that is walkable and no one will have to walk on the motor carriageway. The MUZ can accommodate all the trees, so that almost none have to be cut. More trees can be planted in the MUZ to ensure it is safe and comfortable to walk or cycle on the road. Adding a cycle track will make the road even more “people friendly”, encouraging more people to walk or cycle to the Metro stations that are planned along this road.

What has the PMC planned?

The Road Department on the other hand, is hellbent on just increasing the motor carriageway in a desperate attempt to ease congestion. By providing a measly 2 - 3 meter footpath, they will ensure it will be unwalkable, as it will be obstructed by street light poles, DP boxes, bus stops, gantry columns, metro station columns, signboards, and yes even trees. Wider roads will also make it even more difficult to cross the road, especially since the traffic police provide very little time during the signal cycle for pedestrians.

After having already cut 93 trees, to provide a wider road it had also proposed to cut 87 more trees. The PMC had called for the public to submit their objections by 20th November, 2023. 

All concerned citizens raised their objection based on these points:

  • Save all the trees by developing the right design with a proper footpath and MUZ as per IRC Guidelines
  • The track record of agencies to make sure transplanted or compensatory trees survive is quite poor, and in any case nothing can replace an old big tree
  • Creating more space for vehicles will only invite more traffic and with it pollution
  • With the Metro on the same road, we expect the traffic to reduce, not increase - after all that’s why we are constructing the Metro at such a huge cost
  • We need safe footpaths and cycle tracks to encourage these zero polluting modes of travel, for which trees do not need to be cut
  • Pune already has high levels of pollution and needs to save its dwindling tree cover
  • Large trees sequester a large amount of carbon and can create a local cooling effect, helping to combat climate change and urban heat island effect

Why do we need to act?

To reduce congestion, air pollution and create safe roads our demand is for high quality footpaths and cycle tracks being created and provided whenever roads are widened, instead of creating just more space for personal vehicles. Walking is a fundamental right and it should be safe for anyone - a child, a senior citizen or a person with disability - to be able to walk and cross the road safely. To encourage more people to cycle, we need to create a city-wide cycling infrastructure as envisaged in PMC’s own Comprehensive Bicycle Plan. A world class Metro service is being built and coupled with improvements in PMPML services can encourage more people to opt for use of public transport instead of their own vehicle. Finally, we need to save every single tree in the city.

Filing the second PIL 201/2023 Dated 21/12/2023

After PMC failed to follow the statutory process of Tree Authority in taking permission to cut the trees, the second PIL challenged the order dated 9th December 2023 passed by the Tree Authority, whereby permission to fell, transplant a certain number of trees had been granted to PMC. Some of the relevant aspects of the trees such as the age, girth, species, general health and location of the trees were not considered while granting the permission. Other points highlighted include:

  • Absence of information of trees by the Geo-Tagged Census of Trees. PMC had not undertaken any tree census. 
  • PMC did not enclose any alternative design as per section 8(2) of the Act of 1975 the Municipal Corporation, while making the application seeking permission to fell trees.
  • PMC’s road design for Ganeshkhind road is not in compliance with the statutory IRC standard guidelines as per Motor Vehicle Amendment Act 2019. While the road design, if prepared in compliance with IRC standard guidelines, can save the trees!
  • PMC had already cut/ transplanted a total 107 trees out of 178 trees before this PIL.

The High Court had acknowledged the statutory nature of the IRC standards guidelines for road design and had asked to consider and explore the feasibility of alternative road design which can save the maximum number of trees. At para 19 of its order dated 21.12.2023, the Hon’ble Bombay High Court held,

“we are of the opinion that with a view to examine the feasibility as to whether by altering the alignment of the road and/or its design, the trees can be saved, the matter may be referred to a Court appointed Committee of experts, which will include the officers of the PMC, PMRDA and the representatives of the petitioners as well.”

At the same hearing, Hon’ble Bombay High Court ordered to appoint a High Level Expert Committee to consider, study and recommend the best possible plan so that maximum number of trees can be saved on one hand, and the road widening and Metro Rail project work is also executed. It had put a stay on further felling of trees until the next date of hearing and had asked the committee to complete its task as above as early as possible, preferably within a period of 2 months. Click here to read the High Court order dated 21.12.2023.

The High Level Expert Committee

The committee appointed by the Hon’ble Bombay High Court consisted of experts from Road Construction at Central Road Research Institute CRRI (a CSIR Institute) New Delhi, HOD of Environmental Engineering and related Dept of IIT Mumbai, expert from NEERI Nagpur, expert in Town Planning Urban Planning and Urban Studies Department IIT Mumbai, PMC Additional Commissioner as convener, PMRDA Additional Commissioner, and Mr. Ranjit Gadgil as authorised representative of petitioner.

High Court High Level Expert Committee Members:

  1. Mr. Velmurugan Senathipathi- CSIR-CRRI
  2. Prof. Shyam Asolekar- ESE, IIT Bombay
  3. Dr. Shalini Dhyani- CSIR, NEERI Nagpur
  4. Prof. Himanshu Burte- CUSE, IIT Bombay
  5. Additional Commissioner, PMC Pune
  6. Additional Commissioner, PMRDA Pune
  7. Mr Ranjit Gadgil, Petitioner Parisar, Pune

1st Committee Meeting on 23rd January: Brief presentation by PMC

PMC conducted this meeting with the appointed Committee members and gave a brief presentation regarding the project and planned road widening, tree cutting, double decker flyover and Metro line on Ganeshkhind road. Committee members had asked to submit some detailed reports to study and recommended conducting a site visit to understand the issue on ground before the next meeting.

2nd Committee Meeting on 10th February: Site visit by all Committee members

PMC conducted this meeting, along with a site visit where all the Committee members with PMC concerned officials walked through the project site to understand the issue in depth and heard the submissions from both the parties and discussed it in the meeting at PMC hall. Committee members asked Mr. Ranjit Gadgil to prepare a brief report on his submission regarding Pune's Vision and a note on the status of transport policies of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). They had also asked to conduct a meeting with other concerned stakeholders to hear their submissions on this case. 

3rd Committee Meeting on 24th February: Views exchange on Pune's vision, status of transport policies

Committee conducted a meeting with other concerned stakeholders to hear their submissions on this case where two other petitioner of this case Mr. Ameet Singh and Ms. Hema Chari, Mr. Harshad Abhyankar (of Save Pune Traffic Movement(SPTM)), Sarang Yadvadkar (Town Planner) had shared their views on the case with respect to the vision of Pune city. Petitioner and High Court Committee member Mr. Ranjit Gadgil from Parisar had prepared an alternative design based on statutory IRC standard guidelines for road design (that could save a lot of the trees from being cut), but due to time constraint the committee had decided to see the presentation of the alternative design in the next meeting.

4th Committee Meeting on 13th March: Alternative design proposal presentation by Parisar

Petitioner and High Court Committee member Mr. Ranjit Gadgil from Parisar had presented the alternative design based on statutory IRC standard guidelines for road design where Parisar had analysed the PMC’s road design proposals for Ganeshkhind road and established its non compliance to statutory IRC standard guidelines with ground level facts leading to traffic bottlenecks, and proposed an alternative design which will save the remaining trees along with the construction phase plan for smooth implementation. Ranjit Gadgil had also submitted a report of the presentation of alternative design to the High Court Committee addressing the discussion and queries.

The proposed alternative design for Ganeshkhind Road has been prepared as per statutory IRC Road Standard Guidelines, based on the principle of equitable allocation of road space for all road users to save all the trees while considering the limitation of the road widening and ongoing construction of Metro line and flyover. Some highlights of the alternative design include:

  • Safe, continuous, broad footpaths and cycle tracks for the movement of pedestrians and cyclists while accommodating all existing trees.
  • Dedicated space as a Multi-Utility Zone (MUZs) for planting new compensatory trees while also accommodating stationary elements like street lights, street furniture, bus stops, property access ramps, dustbins, electricity distribution box, which will ensure there is no obstruction in the movement of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, and traffic would flow smoothly by providing continuous and consistent width of motor carriageway and eliminating bottlenecks.
  • Improved road safety features such as safe road crossings for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists of all age-groups.

Click here to access the alternative design presented by Parisar. Salient arguments of the design proposal is as follows:

PMC has proposed to cut/transplant all trees beyond 3 meters from the boundary wall/edge of the road. They have proposed a 2.5 meter footpath. Analysis shows that all these trees lie within 7 meters from the boundary/edge.

PMC has proposed 5 MV lanes, each of 3.5 meters width, a total of 17 meters on either side. It should be noted that 5 MV lanes are not recommended in any IRC Guideline, which provides only for a maximum of 4 MV lanes on wide roads. 

However, the Metro pillars have already been placed at a distance of 12 meters from the center, thus giving a clear 12 meter carriageway for motor vehicles. This is at station locations. 

Parisar has simply proposed a design where the motor carriageway is kept a consistent 12 mtrs (on each side) based on the space available where Metro pillars have already been constructed and widening the footpath, cycle track and multi-utility zone area as per IRC Guidelines.

The High Court High level Expert Committee submitted their collated views and opinion on this case in their report to the Hon’ble Bombay High Court.

Bombay High Court ruling: 'allows 71 trees to be transplanted on Ganeshkhind Road'

In partial relief to the PMC the Bombay High Court allowed 71 trees to be transplanted to complete the road widening work of Ganeshkhind Road.

The Court however had harsh words for the PMC, citing the observation from the report by the Committee that the PMC displayed an “absence of a commitment to developing and implementing a comprehensive and consistent strategy of sustainable transport planning”. They also underscored the need for demand management strategies and not just trying to solve congestion by widening roads and building flyovers. Such an approach is creating a “fait accompli” for which citizens have to accept the destruction of the environment, lamented the Court.

The expert committee had considered the design submitted by Parisar, one of the petitioners, and while observing that the design was based on sound principles, regretted that this cannot be recommended at this “advanced stage” of the project. They recommended that instead of cutting 19 trees and transplanting 52, all 71 should be transplanted and 5000 more trees should be planted as part of the compensatory plantation, which was accepted by the PMC.

The Court however passed directions to all Municipal Corporations to ensure that complete information about tree cutting applications is uploaded on the website, so that there is complete transparency and accountability in the process. The Court finally also gave directions that the guidelines of the Indian Roads Congress (IRC) have to be followed.

“IRC guidelines have been created to ensure that roads are safe, accessible and as per best international standards. The provisions ensure that there is adequate space for trees to be planted on the roads as per the Maharashtra Tree Act which mandates a tree at every 10 meters, without obstructing the path of pedestrians. We are glad that the Court has observed that they are statutory in nature and must be complied with by the Corporation while developing or widening roads”, said Ranjit Gadgil, Program Director of Parisar.

Click here to read the original High Court order dated 17.04.2024