Maraa Grahachara – The tragedy of trees

Bangalore’s tree-lined streets, at an already dwindling number, face the risk of disappearing altogether if the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, does not see improved implementation in the near future, along with the introduction of more adequate legislative provisions for the protection of trees.

The objectives of the Act include preservation, planting, carrying out a tree census, etc. However, it is discouraging to note that these aims have hardly been achieved. The city has lost thousands of trees, as very few refusals have been made to felling applications and the census has not been carried out. Many people seeking to fell trees do not even bother to make applications, and the few applications that are refused are only rejected on paper; illegal felling may, and often does, occur anyway. Further, the current process of making such applications reveals various weaknesses, including a lack of transparency and no opportunities for objections or appeals to be made. Various other problems also exist with respect to the implementation of this law; a seminar conducted recently by the Bangalore Environment Trust aimed to increase public awareness about these concerns.

On closer examination, major inadequacies appear with respect to the Preservation of Trees Act. A single, common Act cannot tackle the problems of both urban and rural areas, where the requirements of both the environment and the residents vary greatly. Like the requirement of a census, which exists mainly on paper, the system of compensatory planting envisaged under the framework of the Act must be implemented and enforced when trees are felled, and a fixed amount of time in which such planting must be carried out should be specified. The definition of ‘felling’ under the Act also does not include newer methods by which trees, especially in cities, are mutilated and destroyed, such as over-pruning them to ensure the visibility of billboards or the strangulation of trees that is caused by road-surfacing. Development projects such as the Metro also pose a great threat to tree-preservation in Bangalore. It is problematic that felling is so often justified for “developmental projects”. This frequently becomes a guise for the concealment of excessive felling.

The two most pertinent criticisms of the Act that emerge, however, involve the penalty imposed under the Act and the Act’s recent amendment. A fine of one thousand rupees and/or up to three months in prison are what the existing penalty for felling entails. This is hardly strong enough to deter individuals from violating the law. Further, following an amendment (which was largely carried out without prior public discussion) made to the Act in January, 2015, a public consultation regarding felling is to be held only if fifty or more trees are proposed to be to be cut down. In addition to this number being entirely arbitrary, no consultation mechanism exists to protect the felling of a smaller number of trees. The law also does not define the duties of the Tree Authority with adequate clarity, and the public, who are primary stakeholders in tree-preservation, have been excluded from the composition of this body.

Article 48A of our Constitution declares that the State must “endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”, and Article 51 states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India […] to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures”. Given that a Constitutional basis exists for the implementation of legislations such as the Preservation of Trees Act, it is imperative that we ensure its adequate enforcement. It is incredibly disheartening to see this Act riddled with numerous administrative potholes and clarifications to be sought when the statute is intended to be a social-welfare legislation.

An important remedial measure that must also be considered is the transplantation of trees using machines. Simply planting new saplings is an inadequate solution. Such trees must be grown for two to three years in a nursery, until they reach a medium size, and must subsequently be transplanted. This, however, obviously requires advance planning. Then, when permission is granted for tree felling, considering the availability of alternative land for transplantation should be made a required stipulation. Felling requests should also be circulated in the public domain, with adequate time being provided to submit objections on the same. The Act could also include incentives to citizens to encourage the planting of trees.

When considering the way forward, other states’ legislation must definitely be studied in order to introduce a more comprehensive framework in Karnataka. The continuing submission of recommendations for changes should be carried out, in order to ensure that the Preservation of Trees Act sees adequate amendment and enforcement. More effective ways of carrying out the existing provisions of the Act must also be considered, such as organising a digital census. In terms of other amendments that would be beneficial to this legislation, positive duties for officials, which are currently absent under the law, must be included. A glance at Australia’s tree-protection legislation reveals that it accords significant importance to such duties, an aspect of the law in which India is starkly lacking.

In addition to the fact that this law’s limitations (and the recommendations made) must be acknowledged by the relevant departmental authorities, the limitations of Karnataka’s tree-preservation legislation must be remedied at the earliest, not to mention that the value of trees must be reinforced in people’s minds, if Bangalore is to retain its claim to the title of India’s ‘Garden City’.

 

Jahnavi Visvanathan, Intern, ALF