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Saving Guwahati's trees

Incidents of the felling of trees by different government agencies and other agencies from time to time have caused a lot of public resentment.


Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  3 Oct 2022 4:40 AM GMT

Incidents of the felling of trees by different government agencies and other agencies from time to time have caused a lot of public resentment. While one recent case at hand is the removal of hundreds of trees as the Khanapara-Jalukbari stretch of the Guwahati NH is being widened, there are also speculations that the grand old trees which are still surviving around Dighalipukhuri in Guwahati are soon literally facing the axe. The question which does not appear to have been asked is: Are there any legal provisions to protect trees from being felled by the government or any of its numerous wings? Scanning through government websites, one finds that there is something called 'Assam (Control and removal of trees from non-forest lands) Rules, 2002, which were framed in compliance with the Supreme Court's directions dated May 12, 2001. These Rules very specifically state that one has to register the plantation of trees in "non-forest land" comprising a continuous patch of land measuring two hectares or more, and obtain permission to fell them. But, unfortunately, there does not seem to be any provision to protect trees grown or standing along roads, in road-dividers, parks and institutions etc. From this, one can draw the inference that trees standing on patches of land less than two hectares in the area are not protected under the law and can be felled. It may be recalled that Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari in a written reply in Rajya Sabha on December 1, 2021, had stated that while the development of National Highways involves cutting of trees in the Right of Way acquired by MoRTH, it is, however, ensured that the bare minimum tree felling is carried out for widening of existing National Highways. Tree felling is carried out either by Forest Department, Forest Corporation or by the Contractor after obtaining tree felling permission from the appropriate authorities under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and local laws from the forest and the non-forest area. Data on trees cut is maintained at the project level. The minister had also informed Rajya Sabha that to compensate for the ecological loss, the median and roadside plantation is being carried out either by the contractor as a scope of agreement or through the Forest Department as deposit work. In addition, plantation jobs are also being carried out by private agencies and NGOs through competitive bidding, apart from the compensatory afforestation carried out by the Forest Department for statutory compliance under FCA 1980 and local laws. In the case of widening the Guwahati NH bypass, the "bare minimum feeling" was not visible to the citizens. It is also not known whether any compensatory plantation was carried out in this case. It is important to note that the Supreme Court in November last year had expressed scepticism when a panel constituted by it had tried to justify the felling of roadside trees or 'planted trees on non-notified land'. But delving further, one finds that while all civilized cities of the country have specific Acts for the preservation of trees, there is nothing like that for the trees of Guwahati. This is despite the fact that Guwahati has several reserved forests and at least two wildlife sanctuaries in and around it, apart from a Ramsar Site. The national capital, for instance, has the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994. The Maharashtra Preservation of Trees Act 1971 is also another very important piece of legislation which is more in favour of protecting and preserving trees in contrast to the Assam Act which has more provisions for cutting and felling trees rather than saving, protecting and preserving them. Trees in Mumbai on the other hand are covered under the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Preservation of Trees Act 1975, according to which a tree cannot be felled without the prior permission of a Tree Officer. A similar provision is there also in Delhi. The West Bengal Trees (Protection and Conservation in Non-Forest Areas) Act, 2006 is also worth examining. In the West Bengal Act, there is a specific provision for instituting an inquiry for the purpose of granting permission to fell a tree in a non-forest area. It also has a mandatory provision for planting double the number of trees felled, a provision which appears to be non-existent in the case of Assam. A scan of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976 on the other hand reveals that permission for felling trees in that state is granted only after holding a public consultation. Such a provision appears to be lacking in Assam. What is also lacking in Assam is sharp-focused public activism to protect trees. For instance, no one was heard asking the forest department, Guwahati Municipal Corporation or GMDA exactly how many trees there were in Guwahati in 1999 and how many there are now.

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