Exiting Dhaka's suffocating traffic snarl on the way to Chattogram, you have to take the four-lane Dhaka-Chittagong highway for your trip and then, a wondrous sight hits you as you float along the spacious and smooth tarmac path.
In addition to the unusual-for-Bangladesh less stressful driving experience on a well-designed road, your view is filled with something so unique that you are sure to wonder where you are. Because, the median that separates the opposing vehicles is lined with numerous local flowering trees that are in bloom round the year.
For the next 143 kilometres of driving, you will be cruising along a path that hosts 52,000 individual trees of 14 different species, all of them local, and they flower at different times of the year so the traveller is visually serenaded with multi-coloured flowers and, perhaps, their fragrance as well at all times.
While smaller flowering plants like radhachura, togor, sonalu, etc. burst into colours, to gorgeously bedeck the highway, mid-sized trees like kodom and jarul are also sheltering birds and smaller wildlife.
This venture to plant flowering trees along the road is unusual, to say the least. Roadside tree planting is a sorry, monotonous and mindless act in Bangladesh. Variety does not seem a consideration. It looks like the planters' thoughts always unmistakably latch on mahogany, acacia or raintree, trees that can be cut down and sold when matured but contribute little to the ecosystem.
Those who take an interest in trees will immediately recognise that special attention has been paid not just to beautification but also to the suitability of the trees to the environment.
Some of the plants bloom all year round, but at this time of the year, a few of them like krishnachura are adorned with fiery red flowers.
So, given a past history of mindless selection of trees for the median that very soon dry up or die off, whose idea was it to put so much thought in the selection of trees for that stretch of Dhaka-Chittagong Highway?
With some enquiry, the name of MAN Siddique came up. He was then the secretary of the Roads and Highways Division who thought of planting diverse flowering trees on the median of the country's most important national highway.
How it all happened is a story worth hearing from the very man himself.
The Business Standard managed to talk with MAN Siddique about how this unusual plan was conceived.
The upgrade work of the highway into a four-lane one was taken in 2016, included a five-metre wide median that would be used for an elevated expressway in future.
But before you knew it, encroachers made themselves cozy on the median. Soon another unexpected problem popped up. The glare from opposing headlights at night made driving at night a risky business.
Siddique brainstormed for a permanent solution and then the inspiration hit him.
"In developed countries, the highways are beautifully decorated with flowering trees on the median to present a natural look, which also creates a positive mood in the travellers," said Siddique.
"I then decided to plant flowering trees along the highway," reminisced Siddique, who is now the managing director of the Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited.
Selection of trees
But you don't just go to a nursery and choose your plants when it is a government project. The Department of Roads and Highways has an arboriculture department that is tasked with planting trees on the slope of roads and highways to stop erosion.
Maybe they could help. "We asked the department to do a study for us and find out which types of flowering trees would be best for planting on the median," Siddique said. They studied the issue and consulted with other agriculture offices. "Finally, they made a list of 25 flowering trees including kanchan, sonalu, kodom and palash."
A lot of thought went into the selection of each type of tree. They were selected after careful consideration of their characteristics. Questions like: how long it takes for the tree to grow, how much care it would need, when is its flowering season, how long are the branches when fully grown, how much area would the tree canopy cover, and also, how tall the trees would be – had to be discussed at length.
But then the plan hit a snag.
The original project proposal did not have the requirement for planting trees nor was there any budget for the trees.
Siddique then set to revise the Development Project Proposal (DPP) and had to build a convincing case to get the money from the government.
Prime minister's intervention
The break came when Siddique, along with some officials met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and presented the proposal of planting flowering trees on the median. Siddique briefed the prime minister.
"We showed her the different stages of growth of these trees and how a flowering one looks. We showed her pictures of the 25 selected flowering trees," said Siddique.
"Then the prime minister gave us an idea. She advised us to plant trees in such a way so that people could see some flowers all year round," said Siddique. "The honourable prime minister included names of some trees and excluded some. The list then had 14 trees."
The project proposal was placed in Ecnec later to get formal approval.
The prime minister advised them to make a zoning system while planting these flower trees.
Accordingly, they did zoning for planting the trees so that people do not miss the natural beauty while travelling.
"We decided to plant one kind of tree for a stretch of four to five kilometres so that travellers can witness the beauty all along their journey," said Siddique.
"Our honourable prime minister included the Kurchi flower. It was not available at that time. But we managed to get as many as possible," said Siddique.
He said once Kurchi was almost extinct in the country. After they planted the trees on the median, these have flowered. He said now there are lots of Kurchi trees.
How the dream came true
Five contractors planted the trees along five segments of the highway.
The conditions for planting the trees are not easy. The contractors will have to plant the trees within one year and take care of the trees for two years, the terms say.
Moreover, "If any tree dies in the meantime, if a tree does not grow well, if a tree is downed by a storm, they will have to replace those," said MAN Siddique.
The 52,000 trees include haimanti/kurchi, radhachura, krishnachura, togor, kanchan, sonalu, kadam, palash, jarul and karabi. The highest number of trees planted is sonalu – 6,960, while the lowest is bakul – 2,290.
After two years of maintenance by the contractors, the zonal offices of the Roads and Highways Department are now looking after the trees.
Siddique said he had noticed some change in the mood of the people in the area.
They do not pick these flowers and those who travel by the highway are full of appreciation for the initiative. Many people are now planting the trees that were on the verge of extinction.
"I feel happy whenever I go along the highway. Many of our officials recognise me for this and say it was my brainchild and that I made it a success. I feel really great," said Siddique.
What the nature lovers say
Nature lover Mokaram Hossain believes that the plantation of flower trees on the highway is undoubtedly a positive initiative.
"But they should have planted the trees in a more planned way," observed Mokaram. "It would have been better if they consulted botanists before selecting trees."
He said there are some trees like kanchan that are spreading out on the roads.
He said they could have planted kath golap, which is a slow-growing tree and it bears flowers all year long.
However, Siddique said they had taken suggestions from the Arboriculture Department of the Roads and Highways Department.
"The people who are in the Arboriculture Department have an agriculture background," said Mokaram. "The opinion of an agriculturalist and a botanist will not be the same. If the suggestions came from a botanist, it would have been more useful."
Nurturing the trees
Cumilla and Chattogram zonal offices of the Roads and Highways Department maintain the flower trees on the median of the 192km four-lane highway.
Usually, the two zonal offices outsource the task of nurturing the trees to a third party. Sometimes, they hire day labourers to maintain the trees – watering the trees and removing dust from the trees and leaves.
Shoukat Ali, additional chief engineer of the Roads and Highways Department and head of the Cumilla zonal office, said it is a huge task to maintain the trees on the national highways. They had a contractor but the contract expired six months ago.
"They have already signed a contract for the maintenance work on the highway," said Shoukat.
The head of the Chattogram zonal office and additional engineer of the Roads and Highways Department said they have outsourced the task to labourers as their contract with a third party expired a few months back.