Photo courtesy Dushiyanthini

When I heard that the large, beautiful trees that pave Reid Avenue in Colombo were being felled, my heart broke. I was so stirred inside – and it was hard to explain to anyone else why this particular incident had moved me so much.

When I came to Bangalore, my first thought was that this was another city that was home to large, beautiful, old trees – trees that had stood for decades, centuries perhaps, trees that had seen change, seen families come and go, people grow old; trees that had seen governments topple and others take their place, many of these trees probably saw the end of colonial rule and the beginning of the life of Independent India. It made me miss Colombo just a little less. It has been hard to imagine returning to Colombo and seeing the grand old trees on Reid Avenue uprooted and chopped up, lying sadly on the side of the road until they are put in the back of a truck and taken away.

The trees being cut-down on Reid Avenue are the perfect example of the kind of ‘development’ that Colombo, and some other parts of Sri Lanka, are now facing. With the strange yet unsurprising allocation of the Urban Development Authority to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, these projects for infrastructural development and urban beautification have been unstoppable. While it’s hard to deny that in some instances, Colombo has indeed become more orderly and ‘beautiful’ as a result of these projects, what’s essentially worrying is the way in which they are carried out. Typically, you wake up one morning and they are tearing something down or building something up, and you have no idea why or what it is, when it’s going to be done or what the next step is. There’s little or no information accessible to the public – the residents of the area or otherwise concerned citizens. These projects sometimes involve something like the felling of very old, very large trees and we have no idea why. Lack of information and public awareness is just one head of a many-headed beast; the other very frightening one is the fact that these projects seem very obviously thought up by individuals who know nothing about urban development, or development, at all.

And this is where the real problem lies. All across Sri Lanka, from Kalpitiya to Pasikudah, there’s development taking place at an alarmingly efficient rate, and it all looks frighteningly badly thought out. Beaches are ravaged and luxury resorts are built with no heed paid to the damage to surrounding ecosystems and environment, small local businesses are brought down and boutique restaurants and hotels replace them. Roads are widened, bridges and highways are mushrooming across the parts of the country that the government cares to develop and homes and indeed trees are removed to make way for these. Many of these large-scale, high-cost projects seem detrimentally unsustainable – economically, socially and environmentally. They are plans which are made at the whim and fancy of those at the helm, plans which once decided on, by God knows who, are simply carried out – without consulting the relevant experts, sometimes not even consulting the relevant authorities, without a second of consideration for the long-term impact they may have on the local community and the environment if implemented incorrectly, and without so much as a thought about what happens after. But then, those are very qualities that have been the defining features of every decision made by this government: it simply does what it wants, when it wants, because it can, without thinking too much about how it affects everyone else, and certainly without a care for the future.

A Facebook group was formed days after the first trees on Reid Avenue were cut down, and pictures of the tragedy – gruesome and heart-rending, like any innocent casualties of war – reached many online in Sri Lanka through the social networking site. The group, called Stand Up for Colombo’s Trees, organized a protest on November 29. They are different from the average youth-activist groups one sees online; they seemed to have a very thorough understanding of the problem, having done the homework of talking to the relevant authorities to ask for reasons, rather than simply jumping to angry conclusions and resorting to mindless and ineffective vitriol online. Secondly, what they purportedly wanted to protest was not merely the actual felling of the trees, they wanted to protest lack of public awareness and information. They quite rightly see the trees public property, and therefore their protest was to lay claim to our right know about what happens to them and why they were being chopped down.

According to their Facebook page, the Colombo Municipal Council claimed that the roots of these trees had damaged the concrete pipes/sewer systems/roads. The roots had to be removed from the ground, and therefore the trees themselves, as leaving them without firm roots made them a public safety hazard.  The page further reports, ‘However, no effort has been taken to enlighten the residents of Colombo city about the reasons for cutting down these trees which we have come to love as part of our neighbourhood, and as part of our common heritage and pride. Further, we spoke to UDA, and no one at the UDA was aware of the felling. The Landscape Division that plants trees was also unaware that the tree cutting was underway.’ Jan Ramesh, one of the founders of the group, also said that the CMC had said that rootballing – the ideal way to carry out this kind of operation, where the tree is removed from the ground by its roots without being harmed – was too costly, which is why they were instructed to carry out the cutting-down approach.

The protest, by all reports, seemed to have been refreshing itself – it seemed much more than a tree-hugger tantrum, and therefore will probably have been more effective too. It was a small but informed and interested group of people that gathered on Reid Avenue on November 29, to demand their right to knowledge, their right as citizens to fight for the trees, and to ask that things be implemented in a planned and sustainable manner. The group wished to ‘share a common loss’, create awareness, and to find out if the proper steps were being taken in the aftermath of the felling of trees, first with regard to what happens to the felled trees, and secondly with regard to whether new trees would be planted in their place in a manner that wouldn’t result in the same problem 50 years down the line.

To me, the act of cutting down the Reid Avenue trees was symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the way our country is run; the way that matters extremely delicate and important are resolved by snap-judgments, and decisions that affect us all are made in forums where there is no balanced representation of views and opinions. The way that the cheaper method is always preferred over the right method, when we know that it’s precisely this kind of thing that a city municipality should be spending on, not election campaigns. The way people in Colombo knew nothing about it, except that it was happening, and have no official platform on which to object to it or find out about it was to me symbolic of the way this government has trained us to ask no questions of it. And more importantly, it was symbolic of this ‘development’ we are being subjected to, this ‘development’ that’s about getting things done the cheaper, quicker way and pays no heed to consequences or concerns.

There are several troublesome aspects of this ‘development’, the most important being the fact that it’s a façade. It is the shining veil that hides the true monster: the oppression of an entire minority population, the military occupation of their land and property, disappearances, torture in prisons, intimidation of dissenters, corruption. In Sri Lanka, where we have the whole gamut of criminal activity occurring at the highest level of authority, this ‘development’ is what hides real horrors from average citizens. It is what stands between a normal man and the mess that this government has made of post-war Sri Lanka. It is what stands in the way of him voicing his discontent, because when he wants to say he’s concerned, they say, but why, look at all the ‘development’ we’re giving you.

So in a country where you can’t talk about accountability for war crimes, transparency, or the continued oppression of a people, maybe it’s the trees we can talk about. In a country where it seems like you can’t fight for law and order or justice, maybe it’s the trees for which we can fight. In a country where you can’t say how much you hate the way things are, maybe it’s the trees for which you can use your voice. Save the trees, because it may be all we can save.

Search for Stand Up for Colombo’s Trees on Facebook: you can join the page to share information and stay updated on any new developments.