The Sankey Road trees might have survived longer had the Mayor Sharadamma Ramanjaneya initiated a meeting of the Tree Authority of which she is the convener. But Shardamma is not aware of the Tree Authority for Bangalore. The authority is supposed to hear the public’s complaints on tree felling. Citizens and organisations can appeal decisions by forest department officials such as the BBMP Tree Officer, permitting or disallowing cutting of trees in the city.
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The top forest official in BBMP limits, Deputy Conservator of Forests K Puttaswamy says, “There is already a Tree Authority – comprising Mayor, Commissioner, Deputy Conservator of Forests and a nominated councillor – to which people can give complaints on tree felling. It does not have a office as such, but meets (is supposed to) whenever BBMP gets a complaint”.
Puttaswamy agrees that the public can complain to Tree Authority on the remaining two trees left on Sankey Road if needed, but adds that he has never been part of any meeting by the Tree Authority since he took charge three years back. “Probably there have never been any complaints”, he says.
But in what appears to little known fact in Karnataka regulations, Puttaswamy says that in case of complaints, it is the mayor who is supposed to initiate Tree Authority meetings,. “If there is no elected mayor, the administrator (state government) can do this,” he says.
Vinay Sreenivasa of Hasiru Usiru says that activists did file a complaint with the Tree Authority on June 29, when the Sankey Road trees were going to be auctioned. The written complaint was given to the BBMP Commissioner’s office, not directly to the mayor, says Sreenivasa. “We informed the Commissioner about it over the phone, but the process continued despite this”, he adds.
“I am not aware of the Tree Authority. I am also not aware of this particular complaint”, Sharadamma told Citizen Matters over the telephone. Therefore the question of her convening meeting of the authority did not even arise, even as, on July 1st, activists were arrested and tree-cutting proceeded.
But Sreenivasa points the finger at the DCF Puttaswamy himself. “Though Tree Officer Venkateshappa initiated the auction, it was approved by the DCF,” he says.
Puttaswamy spoke to Citizen Matters about his defense on the procedure for auctions. Once the BBMP Tree Officer gives sanction, it is notified in daily newspapers. In this case, the notice was published in Deccan Herald, Prajavani, etc. on June 28, he says. “Because of the situation in Sankey road, I gave permission to the ACF to start the auction with police protection. I have the authority to accept or reject the sale once auction is completed. In this case the sale amount was higher than the rates fixed by BBMP, so I approved it,” he says.
The BBMP does not have to hold public consultations before tree cutting, says Puttaswamy, in an assertion that is likely to irk the city’s green activists even further.
In a related development last week, Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group, a city-based green NGO, filed a separate complaint with the Karnataka forest department against Puttaswamy for auctioning trees secretly despite public protest. Puttaswamy’s actions violate Karnataka Tree Preservation Act, Karnataka State Forest Act, Karnataka Transparency Act etc., says Saldanha, in his complaint.
Puttaswamy says he is not aware of Saldanha’s complaint, and adds that it does not concern him. He separates the actual decision to fell the trees from that of greenlighting the auction. “Decisions on tree felling is made by the Tree Officer, who is also the Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF). As ACF, he reports to me; but as Tree Officer his decisions are independent”, he says.
All of this and more is likely to come under scrutiny next week at the High Court. Frustrated with BBMP’s intransigence with tree-cutting, Dr Meenakshi Bharath and others had filed a public interest litigation at the High Court last week asking for a stay on Sankey Road’s tree-cutting . “Due process not being followed, tree auction held in-camera as opposed to being done in public, not informing the public beforehand, are some of the issues we are raising,” says Meenakshi.
The case is coming up for hearing next Tuesday, 12th July. At the first hearing on 4th July, BBMP’s lawyers pushed for time saying it needed to prepare arguments. A city administration that wasted no time in cutting the trees last week, was asking for time this week to prepare its arguments.
Meanwhile, opinions on tree felling for roadwidening in the city are not a unanimous yes or no. Some in real estate community are taking a line opposite that of the greens. Irshad Ahmed, President of the Bangalore Realtors Association India (BRAI) says, “Widening and tree felling is inevitable, probably greenery will have to be limited to areas outside CBD. Given the protests and court cases, BBMP has to take public into confidence before widening, but the final decision should be from BBMP.”
However, city-based traffic expert M N Sreehari is unimpressed. He says that on Sankey road and many others, congestion can be managed with minimal widening and no harm to trees. “BBMP needs to constitute a panel of academicians and researchers who can advice it on traffic management”, he says.
Sreehari also disagrees with BBMP’s oft-repeated statement that the city’s Revised Master Plan had already notified Sankey Road and others for widening in 2005. “When the roads were proposed for widening initially, no such experts were consulted”, he says.
The ball though, is in the High Court’s court now.
Repeated litigations have not resulted in clarity
The Sankey Road PIL is not the first case challenging Bangalore’s roadwidening projects, especially on the issue of tree-cutting.
In February 2011, a High Court division bench comprising Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justice A S Bopanna initiated a PIL suo motu against BBMP and other civic agencies for indiscriminate tree felling. This was done after HC judge Justice D V Shylendra Kumar wrote to Khehar citing media reports on BBMP’s proposed cutting of 1000 trees. Justice Kumar in his letter said that there was no justification for the proposition that road widening will reduce congestion.
Justice Kumar wrote that no Tree Authority exists, as required by the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act, due to which public has been denied participation in decisions on tree cutting. Sanctioning of tree felling is above the powers of the Tree Officer and hence all of BBMP’s sanctions given for Bengaluru’s tree-cutting were illegal and void, he argued. Government should constitute a Tree Court and a Metropolitan Committee of BBMP corporators, NGOs etc. to advise authorities, he wrote.
That is not all. Two and a half years before Justice Kumar’s action, Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group and Kathyayini Chamaraj of CIVIC filed a similar PIL with the High Court, challenging BBMP’s roadwidening at the cost of Bangalore trees.
In neither of these cases has the High Court ruled to settle whether BBMP’s approach of tree cutting for roadwidening is legal or not. The Sankey Road PIL brings the same question back to the fore, yet again.