BENGALURU: The frequent amendments to the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act after the Siddaramaiah government took over have not helped the cause of trees. The amendments have only enabled the government bulldoze its way on the steel flyover project despite stiff opposition from the public and greens.
Environmental and legal experts say the systemic dilution of a historic law has emboldened the government to ignore expert opinion.
Since the Act was formulated in 1976, amendments were brought in quietly and subtly so that construction of roads, road-widening projects and other infrastructure development could be taken up easily, according to environmentalists.
The last amendment in 2015 by the Siddaramaiah government added another 25 trees to the existing 16 under the exemption list. Prior permission of the forest department is not required to cut trees in the exemption list.
As per another amendment, a public consultation is to be held only if 50 or more trees are proposed to be cut. This means there is no consultation mechanism to protect the felling of a smaller number of trees and civic agencies can go ahead with only a sanction from the jurisdictional tree officer as it happened recently in the TenderSure project.
Jayna Kothari, advocate and executive director, Centre for Law and Policy Research, says the clause that the tree officer put up a public notice and invite objections from the public if more than 50 trees are to be felled, applies to the steel flyover project too. “It needs to be seen if the tree officer will give the nod for axing the trees in this case. But for that, the public needs to okay it.”
Says noted environmentalist A N Yellappa Reddy, “The below-50-trees clause has now given full powers for anybody to cut trees. Added to this, if you go in for piecemeal contracts, this clause can be misused and this is the government’s ultimate aim.”
He adds, “With 41 tree species in the exemption list, it has now become easy for individuals and private contractors to fell trees without permission. It has encouraged reckless felling of trees and no tree planting programme can compensate for the large and mature old trees on Ballari Road.”
Urban conservationist Vijay Nishant, who, as part of Project Vruksha, has been enumerating and identifying tree species in various parts of the city, says, “The weakening of the Tree Act in fact led to large-scale felling of trees in Bengaluru, Cauvery basin and Western Ghat districts. Kodagu and Chikkamagaluru alone witnessed lakhs of wild mango varieties being felled as soon as it was included in the exemption list. However, legal action ensured that mango was removed from the exemption list. Unfortunately, with the inclusion of many fruit-bearing and timber trees in the list in 2015, it is helping the timber and real estate lobbies to pursue their agenda of turning this city into a concrete jungle.”
Anu Chengappa, an advocate who filed a petition in the High Court against the massive felling of mango and pink cedar trees by the timber lobby in Kodagu district after they were included in the exemption list, says, “As per this Act, a survey needs to be conducted and a cost-benefit-analysis needs to be undertaken. And permission needs to be taken from the Forest Department. However, if the trees figure in the exemption list, then permission is not needed. So we need to first identify the species to be cut,” she adds.