CHENNAI/BENGALURU/HYDERABAD/BHUBANESWAR: The effects of global warming may be what they are, but felling of trees is a major factor in the temperature spikes being observed in urban India. Trees can reduce temperature by 2-3 degrees in a city, making the difference between a hot day and a heat wave.
Few cities in India keep a watch on their green cover. While 33 per cent of the total land cover ought to be forested, no city in India comes anywhere near this mark.
Chennai’s green cover for instance, as per a survey done in 2013 by the State Land Use Research Board, is 6.25 per cent. However, a 2016 survey done by IIT Madras puts the figure at 9 per cent.
In other cities, the loss of green cover is masked by the fact that forest cover in the overall state is claimed– rather magically -- to be increasing.
No numbers are officially kept in most of the cities on felling but large-scale cutting down of tree felling is a fact. When the metro rail project began in Hyderabad, the city lost 20,733 trees between April 2012 and March 2013. (Several of them were translocated but outside the city). In Bengaluru, over 6000 trees were cut down in the last five years.
Urban foresters and planners admit that figures for tree felling are not diligently kept in cities. A retired forest officer of Telangana said, “It is near-impossible to keep track of illicit felling of trees. The timber and its value may be accounted for but it’s not possible to say where and how many trees have been cut in a city.”
But there are laws governing tree cutting all the same. Tamil Nadu has three: the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act, 1949; the Tamil Nadu Hill Areas (Preservation of Trees) Act, 1955; and the Tamil Nadu Hill Stations (Preservation of Trees) Amendment Act, 1979. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have the WALTA (AP Water, Land and Trees Act. Bengaluru has the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, and Odisha has the Orissa Timber and other Forest Produce Transit Rules, 1980.
However, there is no separate authority to take care of tree cover in metropolitan areas, unlike in cities like Pune, which has a comprehensive Tree Act. Most of these laws, Odisha’s being an exception, govern trees even if they are on private land and require permission to cut them down. But the laws leave enough room to allow tree felling: danger to life, obstruction of traffic, etc.
The penalties for cutting down trees is little more than a slap on the wrist. In Bengaluru, a violation of the law fetches a penalty of one-fourth of the cost of the tree and a maximum fine of Rs 50,000.