In the first part of this series, we explained how compensatory afforestation is a sham – compensatory saplings are not tracked or cared for, or are planted way outside the city. In this part, we explore why trees are felled in the first place without public consultations.
Environmentalists in Bengaluru have pointed out the curious trend of tree-cutting packages awarded in bunches of 49 trees or lesser.
Why is this? Section 8 (3)(vii) of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, stipulates that if more than 50 trees need to be cut for any infrastructure purpose like road construction or widening, Metro rail, buildings etc., permission can only be issued after a public consultation. It also says that the public consultation should be publicised well in advance, through advertisements.
But this rule effectively delays projects, as there are bound to be public objections to the cutting of trees en masse. Officials have figured out a way to avoid this situation for sometime – they issue work orders to cut trees in bunches of 49 or lesser. To cut fewer than 50 trees, only permission from the BBMP Tree Officer is needed, and nothing more. This ensures no one comes to know about the tree felling, and the trees are felled before anyone even notices.
Sudarshan Nityananda, a Trustee of the Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation Bangalore Environment Trust (BET), says that sometime last November, BBMP contractors cut ten trees on the pavement of the Indian Institute of Management (IIMB). The trees were 40 feet high and could have been transplanted to any suitable site. But, since no public consultation is needed for cutting fewer than 50 trees, these were simply cut down overnight.
Later, Nityananda says, BBMP’s Forest Cell claimed that the trees were cut without even their permission, by some “mistake”. Now, it will take at least five years before any tree can be planted on this pavement since Metro construction is going on here, says Nityananda.
Dattatraya T Devare, environmentalist and a Trustee of BET, had filed RTI applications with BMRCL last year, for details of tree-felling permissions along Metro stretches like Hosur Road. The documents he accessed prove that there were ample instances of awarding tender to cut trees in bunches of less than 50.
Another RTI that Devare filed with the BBMP, revealed that the Tree Officer approves nearly all requests for tree felling. The data between April 2012 and August 2015 showed that, of 8195 requests that the Tree Officer received in that period, only 0.9 percent were rejected. And, of the total requests, the majority (5952) were from government agencies. Devare had filed another RTI with the BBMP seeking updated data since August 2015. However, he says the BBMP has not responded to the RTI yet, because of which he has filed an appeal with the Information Commission.
A public interest litigation to demand accountability
Tired of watching agencies circumvent the Preservation of Trees Act to speed up projects, Devare and BET jointly filed a petition in the High Court last year. Respondents in the case are the State of Karnataka, the Karnataka Forest Department, the Bangalore Urban District Tree Authority, BBMP and BMRCL.
The petitioners requested the court to
- Instruct the state bodies to discharge their duties adhering to the Preservation of Trees Act
- Instruct the Bengaluru Urban District Tree Authority to hold meetings every three months as per the Act, and to have the Authority conduct comprehensive census of trees every five years and publish the results in the website of Karnataka Forest Department
- Direct the Authority and state government to ensure planting of enough trees in the city’s public lands like parks and lake premises
- Strike down Section 8 (3)(vii) of the Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, which says public hearing is required for axing more than 50 trees, and to declare this section as unconstitutional
- Make sure that public notice is issued for all trees to be cut for public purposes, and to try to keep felling of the tree as the last option after considering means to save it
- Instruct authorities to make sure tree felling permissions are not issued in cases where the idea seems to be to circumvent public hearing; and to ensure that tree-felling permissions are published on the website of the Karnataka Forest Department for at least 15 days, only after which the applicant can proceed to fell the trees
- Instruct authorities to ensure that whenever permission is granted to fell a tree, effort should be to first transplant it, and if not possible, to compensate by planting a new tree. Instruct state government to appoint Tree Officers in an impartial manner to ensure their independence and impartiality
As we write this, Bengaluru is set to lose another 3700 trees. The Karnataka Road Development Corporation Ltd (KRDCL) has sent a proposal to BBMP’s Forest Cell seeking permission to remove or translocate 3700 trees so as to build the elevated corridors, despite public opposition.
Of the 3700 trees, 144 trees are on Bellary Main Road, between Hebbal and Mehkri Circle. And among these, 120 are in the Cubbon Park belt. With upcoming projects like the elevated corridors and expansion of Metro, it remains to be seen if public consultations will be held and tree loss minimised.