In 2018, the NGO Bangalore Environment Trust (BET) filed a PIL (WP 17841 of 2018) in the High Court of Karnataka, considering the city’s deteriorating green cover. The PIL sought to implement the provisions of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act 1976 (‘Trees Act’). This article is a brief summary of the current status of the PIL.
The petitioners’ prayers to the court were as follows:
- The Tree authority and the Tree Officer should do their duties diligently as per Tree Act.
- A comprehensive Tree Census should be carried out.
- A public notice should be issued when the Tree Officer gets an application to fell trees.
- Objections from public should be considered before issuing permission to cut trees.
- All efforts, including transplantation, should be made to save trees.
- Notification of all provisions of the Tree Act to all parts of Bengaluru Urban and Bengaluru Rural (besides BBMP limits).
- Authorities should plant and maintain a standard number of trees (for example, through adequate compensatory plantation).
- Challenging the scope of Section 8(7) of the Tree Act which provides for certain trees being exempted.
Court passed key orders
The court has so far passed orders/ made observations regarding the following issues:
Permission for tree felling
Under the Trees Act, the Tree Officer has the authority to issue permissions to fell trees. In April 2019, to address the continued non-compliance under the Act, the Honourable Court asked the government to form a Tree Expert Committee (TEC). Since then, all applications are placed before the TEC which evaluates whether trees can be saved by adopting any method (such as transplantation) and permits felling only as a last resort, after exhausting all other options. The TEC, which comprises experts in the field of agriculture and forestry, has been able to save several trees either through retention or transplantation.
The court expressed utmost dissatisfaction that the tree census (which is mandated under the Trees Act) had not been carried out nearly 43 years since the Act came into force. In February 2020, the court considered initiating contempt proceedings against the concerned authorities. However, the authorities then started the tree census; up till December 2020, about 46,000 trees were enumerated. Census details have been uploaded on the BBMP website. A mobile app is being developed with features such as geo-tagging, which would also allow the public to contribute to the survey by entering details of trees in their own properties. Citizens should look out for public notices inviting them to participate in the census.
Application of mind by TEC
The TEC was expected to demonstrate application of mind while making its decisions. But, in its order dated June 10, 2020, the court observed that the committee members had done the job very casually, and had not displayed any application of mind regarding the chances of survival of trees that were proposed to be transplanted. So, the court directed the government to reconstitute the members of the committee and involve more experts from the field. The new TEC included more experts, who have devised and followed a more rigorous process to save trees through retention/transplantation.
Transplantation of trees
The court observed that transplantation or translocation of trees (so as to protect them from felling) is a fairly expensive method. It noted that the survival of such trees is not guaranteed if sufficient care is not taken at all stages. Striking a note of caution, the court said transplantation is pursued only when there is no alternative but to remove the tree altogether from its original place. The court also noted that it is the duty of the Tree Officer to ensure the transplanted trees survive.
Through the intervention of the court, a detailed scientific procedure was evolved for transplantation by the University of Agricultural Sciences, GKVK, along with the TEC. This would ensure that trees are transplanted at the appropriate places and care is taken to ensure their survival and growth.
Transparency and public participation
Despite provisions in the Tree Act, there was no transparency about tree-felling activities in the city. Citizens would come to know about felling at the last minute and had no opportunity to raise any objection. As a result of the court’s orders in addressing this issue, the process is gradually becoming more open and transparent. Following are some of the measures being implemented currently to ensure transparency:
- Whenever BBMP or Forest department gets an application (for tree felling) from any person/entity/organisation, they should upload the application on the BBMP website along with a public notice.
- Citizens are usually given 10 days to submit their objections to the concerned authority.
- Objections are noted by the Tree Officer, and are thereafter placed before the TEC which carefully examines the application.
- TEC will visit the site and inspect if the trees need to be felled or if they can be retained/transplanted. TEC will then prepare a report with its recommendations and submit it to the Tree Officer.
- Based on these recommendations, the Tree Officer will issue tree-felling permissions.
- All permissions issued by the Tree Officer (irrespective of the number of trees) have to be uploaded on the BBMP website.
- All plans for compensatory plantation (in the ratio of 1:10) should be uploaded on the BBMP website. The concerned authority can act upon the tree-felling permission only after they submit the compensatory plans to the Tree Officer, and the plans are uploaded on the Forest Department website.
- Periodic reports should be submitted on the survivability of the transplanted trees, and these reports should be uploaded on the Forest Department website.
Felling activities in the city can be undertaken only after the process described above has been adhered to. Hence, citizens should regularly check documents uploaded on the BBMP website, and participate in filing objections against tree felling.
Question of exempted trees
BMRCL had stated that as per Section 8(7) of the Trees Act, a person/entity does not need permission to fell certain kinds of trees. BMRCL had sought to cut 872 trees without any permission. The petitioners submitted detailed objections on how this interpretation is inaccurate, particularly considering the established environmental jurisprudence.
The court held that the precautionary principle, along with the principles of public trust and sustainable development, are applicable to public authorities such as BMRCL, and an attempt must be made to save as many trees as possible. BMRCL accordingly undertook to refer to these 872 trees to the TEC. And the TEC noted that 32 trees were not even exempted species under the Trees Act.
BMRCL has thereafter undertaken to refer all applications to the TEC, irrespective of whether the trees are in the exempted category or not.
Key observations of the court
From time to time, the court has made significant observations, such as:
- Even if one tree is permitted to be felled, it has very serious consequences. It is lost permanently, and its replacement is not possible in the near future.
- Under the doctrine of public trust, it is the duty of the State and public authorities to take all possible steps to protect the environment.
- According to the well-recognised principle of sustainable development and precautionary principle, it is necessary for the authorities to apply their mind to the question of saving the maximum number of trees while carrying out a development project.
- All citizens have the right to clean air under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950.
- As far tree felling is concerned, irrespective of the applicability of the Trees Act, the state government and its agencies should not act on their own but will have to take the assistance of experts in the field.
- It is the duty of the Tree Officer to frequently visit the location of transplanted trees to ascertain whether the agency appointed by BMRCL is taking proper care of the transplanted trees during the contractual period of 3 years. After the expiry of three years (once BMRCL’s contract with the tree-transplanting entity expires), the Tree Officer shall verify the condition of the transplanted trees and issue a direction to BMRCL to take care of these trees even after, if required.
The High Court’s progressive orders in the last two years seem to be a good start in preserving the city’s greenery. Various stakeholders can now leverage this strong legal foundation to help restore Bengaluru as a garden city.
[This article was originally published at bngenvtrust.org and has been republished with minor edits]