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Karnataka High Court stays tree felling for road widening


Monday June 09, 2014


"While felling trees for roads in forest and hilly regions is seen as a major scam in India amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees by the nexus between contractors and forest department officials, its environmental impacts have never got adequate importance. However, the recent orders by Karnataka High Court that stayed felling of trees for road widening is certainly a ray of hope for the concerned environmentalists.


HNF Correspondent


Raising concerns about insufficiency of Karnataka Tree Preservation Act to handle current complexities, the Principal Bench of the Karnataka High Court, constituted by Chief Justice Mr. Vikramjit Sen and Justice Mrs. B. V. Nagarathna, issued an interim direction staying felling of trees in Bangalore for widening of roads. This order was issued in continuance of hearings in the PIL filed by Environment Support Group and others challenging Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike's (BBMP - Bangalore's civic agency) proposal to widen 216 roads in violation of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act and Constitutional 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, amongst others.

Submitting some of the major concerns raised in the PIL, Mr. Sunil Dutt Yadav, Advocate for ESG, explained that hundreds of trees were being recklessly felled over the years in Bangalore for road widening and other infrastructure projects.


The Tree Officer of the BBMP, a forest official deputed from the Forest Department and working from within the BBMP, is constrained from taking any objective decision, and there is rarely any reasoned order justifying such massive felling of trees. In fact, entire lines of trees are felled without in any manner taking into account alternatives, such as retaining street trees as medians and creating safe cycling paths. Appeals against such decisions before the Tree Authority, constituted per the Act as an Appellate Authority, was pointless as the same officers who had originally cleared the tree felling were the appellate officers. Thus, in effect, the Tree Act had been rendered meaningless for the purpose for which it had been enacted. Mr. Yadav also submitted that these concerns were in addition to those that had been earlier submitted, that that road widening proposals were not on conformance with the provisions of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act.

The Second Petitioner, Mr. Leo Saldanha, appearing in person, drew the attention of the Court to certain documents which revealed that some Tree Officers were involved in possible corrupt practices. He submitted that in 2007 hundreds of old trees had been felled for widening a 40 kms. stretch of Bellary road connecting the city to its new Airport near Devanahalli. However, these long dead trees were shown on record to have existed a year later. Then, in November 2008, the Tree Officer in collusion with BBMP officials drew lakhs of rupees from the public exchequer terming them as expenditure required to hire contractors to 'fell' the same trees that had already been felled the year before. Such shocking practices were possible, he submitted, as Forest Officials were deputed to the BBMP now and this created a situation where the independent functioning of forest officials was compromised.

Mr. Saldanha also submitted that the public were by and large kept at a distance in the formulation of decisions relating to design, construction and widening of roads. In fact many competent proposals to remedy traffic congestion without necessitating the displacement of communities, destruction of properties or felling of trees had been submitted to BBMP over the years, but no interest was evinced in such progressive ideas. An RTI response from the Chief Engineer (Roads) of BBMP confirmed that the road widening projects were not at all conforming to the National Urban Transport Policy. Consequently, the current spate of road widening projects was opposed to public interest and public policy. He also submitted that decisions on road widening were extremely complex and involved Fundamental Rights of affected communities (such as street vendors and property owners) and also the cause of protecting trees and wildlife (for street tree lines worked as wildlife corridors for birds and small mammals). Thus such complex decisions should have appropriately been dealt with by the Metropolitan Planning Committee, which, unfortunately, the Government has failed to constitute for two decades now. He highlighted that the Leader of Opposition in BBMP Mr. Gunashekar had raised similar concerns in a Council debate and also that the cost of acquiring property to widen 100 roads alone was estimated to be Rs. 17,000 crores which the BBMP could not afford. BBMP's policy of according Transfer of Development Rights to those losing property also seems to have failed as evidenced in the case of one Mr. Khaleeli who was one of the first in the city to have availed of the scheme, and was yet to receive the Development Rights Certificate. Consequently, he had preferred an appeal in the Court demanding compensation for the land lost to road widening.

The counsels for BBMP submitted that they were keen to involve the public and that the Tree Act was being complied with. It was submitted that the Tree Authority had been constituted to ensure any dispute could be resolved, and that the object of protecting trees was met with. It was also claimed that there was massive afforestation being undertaken to compensate the loss of trees felled due to road widening.

Countering this contention, Mr. Phaneendra, Counsel appearing as amicus curiae in the suo moto PIL (WP No. 7288/2011) admitted in response to Justice Mr. Shylendra Kumar's letter to the Registrar of the High Court raising similar concerns against massive tree felling, submitted that BBMP had claimed that it had planted over 800,000 saplings, but clearly such a massive afforestation effort was invisible anywhere in the city. Mr. Yadav supporting this contention argued that the Tree Act in fact required that locally relevant species where to be planted in the very place where trees were felled, and that it is pointless to plant them miles away in compensation.

These assurances of the Counsels of BBMP did not convince the Hon'ble Judges about the civic agency's seriousness in protecting the city's greenery. They also expressed serious reservations over the lack of public involvement in decisions relating to felling trees and road widening and demanded an explanation from the Counsels why such proposals were not subjected to public scrutiny stating “BBMP must serve the public, and not the other way round”. The Bench also expressed serious concerns over the denudation of the greenery in the city observing: “Just look at what you have done to this city? Trees, lakes and gardens are all disappearing rapidly!”

The Principal Bench then reviewed the provisions of the Tree Act and found it grossly insufficient in responding to the complexities of current problems. In particular referring to Section 3 (2) of the Act which provided for the Mayor, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Municipal Commissioner, etc. forming the Tree Authority as an appellate body, the Court recorded in its interim direction that “this amounts to a person being a judge in his own case which is anathema in law”. The Court also observed that it “prima facie (it felt) that people must be aware of felling of road side trees by public notice so that their objections are invited”. On the basis of these observations, the Court directed that the interim stay on felling of trees issued in the case of road widening by National Highway Authorities would also apply to these matters while saying that all these connected matters would be heard jointly on the next date of hearing.

Stating in a corrigendum in further to the release, ESG said, 'it has just come to our attention that there appears to be some ambiguity in terms of the issue of a stay on tree felling in Bangalore due to road widening.

The Karnataka High Court adjourned ESG's PIL (WP No. 7107/2008) for further hearing and directed that it would be heard along with the suo motu PIL initiated by the Court in WP No. 32947 OF 2012 against the felling of trees on NH 218 by National Highways Authority of India, wherein an interim direction against tree felling has been granted.  Our understanding of the events at Court today led us to believe that the stay is applicable to the ESG case as well. Please note, however, that at this moment we are not fully certain if this indeed is the effect of the Hon'ble Court's directions.'


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