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Maharashtra constitutes State Tree Authority to protect trees in urban areas

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
An activist trying to protect a 70-year-old tree in Churchgate, Mumbai, from Metro rail workers who want to cut it, on May 24, 2017.

An activist trying to protect a 70-year-old tree in Churchgate, Mumbai, from Metro rail workers who want to cut it, on May 24, 2017.

A tree that was cut in Aarey unit no 19, in Mumbai on September 30, 2018, by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited.

A tree that was cut in Aarey unit no 19, in Mumbai on September 30, 2018, by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited.

Maharashtra becomes the first State to take a step towards conservation of urban trees by constituting State- and local-level tree authorities.

TAKING the lead in urban tree conservation, the Maharashtra government constituted a Maharashtra State Tree Authority in January and appointed a chairperson and three members to govern it. The core mandate of the tree authority is “increasing the tree cover in urban areas and protecting the existing ones”.

Local civic bodies and councils will also have their own tree authorities, but the State-level tree authority will be the final arbitrator in all cases. It has to monitor the functioning of local tree authorities; the protection and conservation of heritage trees, that is, trees of about 50 years or more; and the felling of heritage trees.

The notification issued by the government named the Secretary of the State’s Department of Environment and Climate Change and its Director as the ex-officio chairman and ex-officio member-secretary respectively of the authority. The Secretaries of the Urban Development and Forest Departments have been appointed as ex-officio members. There is also a tree expert whose knowledge the other team members will have to rely on.

Amendment to Trees Act

The State Tree Authority will be the final authority for deciding applications local municipal tree authorities refer to it. It is tasked with looking into projects that require the felling of more than 200 trees that are five years or more in age. It will also have to make sure that no subterfuge is indulged in when it comes to the number of trees being cut. Project developers have been known to subdivide their project plots so as to project fewer trees. The tree authority will have to ensure that the developer has prepared a tree plan, which, in essence, says that the area being developed should aim for a 33 per cent green belt. The process of forming the State Tree Authority began in July 2021 when Aaditya Thackeray, who heads the Department of Environment and Climate Change, tabled a proposal in the Legislative Assembly for an ordinance that amends the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975. The Cabinet approved the proposal.

It was spurred by the need to improve the forest cover in urban areas and protect old trees, make more stringent rules for felling trees for burgeoning development projects and compel more compensatory planting to be carried out. After the Cabinet approval, Thackeray tweeted: “Through this amendment, we will be able to safeguard green covers across urban landscapes and also provide a robust mechanism to protect heritage trees....” The amendment allows for a fine for illegal felling of trees from Rs.5,000 to Rs.1 lakh a tree. It is encouraging that the Cabinet also approved a proposal for the conservation of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems under the Green Climate Fund. This will be implemented in 11 tehsils in 4 coastal districts of Maharashtra. The Green Climate Fund is a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and assists developing countries in climate change mitigation practices.

Loopholes in Act

Although the amendments to the Trees Act are most welcome, there still seem to be loopholes that do not bode well for trees. Consider the case of heritage trees, which are meant to get special protection. The Act does allow for the cutting of a heritage tree under certain conditions. According to the current Compensatory Plantation Rules in the State, one sapling has to be planted per tree cut (in Mumbai, it is 1:3). But if it is a heritage tree, then the number of compensatory saplings to be planted has to be equal to the tree’s age. This is determined by extracting a straw-thin bore from the trunk that reveals the number of growth rings, which is the age of the tree, a process known as dendrochronology. Each compensatory sapling should be at least six to eight feet in height to ensure its survival in the replanting process and the new plantation should be in the same plot as the old tree or in some common amenity plot like a park. And the organisation responsible has to care for the plantation for seven years and geotag the trees so that they can be monitored via satellite and counted in the tree census.

While all this is encouraging, what is discouraging is that the amended Act offers an alternative to compensatory planting. The feller of the tree can get away with paying compensation for the economic valuation of the felled tree. While how the valuation would be done has not been defined by the State, there was a suggestion that the determining factor could be the amount of oxygen the tree releases into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, there is a Supreme Court judgment that took a more holistic view. In March 2021, while dealing with a matter relating to the cutting of trees more than 150 years old in West Bengal for road widening and road bridges, the Supreme Court said there was a need to “prescribe a mechanism for assessment of both intrinsic and instrumental value of the trees…. To calculate just and fair compensation… for felling of trees… it is… imperative to make a realistic assessment of the economic value of a tree, which may be permitted to fell, concerning its value to the environment and its longevity, about factors such as the production of oxygen and carbon sequestration, soil conservation, protection of flora/fauna, its role in habitat and ecosystem integrity and any other ecologically relevant factor, distinct from timber/wood.”

The first test for the Maharashtra State Tree Authority is already on the cards. Three proposals have been referred to it for felling trees for the metro rail project. Its decision will be something of a test of the authority’s stated intentions.