The tree, considered a landmark, was a roof to a number of vendors, who plied their trade under it.

105-year-old Neem tree in Warangal chopped down to widen roadAravind Arya Pakide/ Facebook
news Environment Tuesday, August 28, 2018 - 17:15

The residents of Hanamkonda in Warangal bid a tearful adieu to a 105-year-old neem tree that was chopped down by the National Highway authorities as part of the road-widening programme and to construct drains as part of the Centre’s smart city mission.

The workers of Van Seva, a local NGO, propped ‘Rest in Peace’ posters against chopped logs and paid floral tributes to the tree. The 105-year-old landmark was not only home to a variety of birds and squirrels but was also roof to a number of vendors, who earned their livelihood under the tree.

Even as the government is gearing up its officials to promote its flagship Haritha Haram programme to protect the state’s green cover, around 196 trees have been sanctioned to be axed from Hanamkonda to Kazipet as part of the National Highway Road Widening project in the district.

Axing livelihood

The grand tree that was axed was synonymous with the DIG’s home at Subedari and was located in the vicinity of the district collector’s office. From traffic constables to cobblers, the tree was a source of income for many who ran their small kiosks under its shade. Now, the axing the grand tree has made their livelihood uncertain as they do not have a place to run their business now.

Gunde Ramulu is a 66-year-old cobbler who has been darning shoes under the tree for the last 40 years. For him, it is more than a tree.

“Since there was no opportunity in my village to make a living, I came here with my wife Indira, who is from Waddepally. It has been 40 years since I have been sitting under this tree. I learnt to stitch shoes from my father Chandraiah sitting here,” he says.

Ramulu, who lost the use of his legs in an accident 20 years ago, says, “I want to work till my last breath since I know nothing other than mending shoes.”

Brazen violation of norms

In an authorisation letter that TNM has access to, Warangal District Forest Officer (DFO) has granted permission to the National Highway engineer to cut trees along NH-563 in Hanamkonda and Kazipet cities. But activists allege that due procedures are not followed and that the authorisation letter is only an eyewash.

Speaking to TNM, P Veerabhadra Rao, head of the Vana Seva Society, says that felling of trees by the National Highway authorities, citing developmental reasons, has become a recurring phenomenon in the district.

“While reasons such as development are understandable, what is confounding is the brazen violation of the WALTA (Water, land and trees Act) rules by the authorities themselves,” Rao says.

“Every time a tree is cut, the forest officials concerned are required to assess the situation and enumerate why the axing of a tree in the locality is unavoidable. If the situation warrants felling, the contractor is supposed to pay a stipulated fee, depending on the value of the tree and plant three saplings for one tree fallen. But in this case, neither have the officials assessed the ground situation nor are the contractors contributing to the environment in any way,” Rao notes.

The chopping of the entire tree took around 16-18 hours. The residents remained mute spectators as they were scared of locking horns with the highway authorities.

“We reached the spot within minutes of receiving information about the cutting. All that the contractor could produce was an authorisation letter that showed the approval to cut 196 trees from Hanamkonda to Kazipet as part of the road widening project. Since it was an issue that concerned the National Highway authorities, there wasn’t much we could do,” says Rao, who is also a member of the wildlife and forest protection committee.

Environment activists further allege that the contractors are minting money by selling the wood after paying a paltry amount of Rs 500 to Rs 700 to the forest department for every tree cut.

“The 105-year-old neem tree was quite old and so it can fetch a good price in the market. The contractors authorised by the highway authorities sell the wood for making furniture at high prices, after paying a meagre amount as compensation to the forest officials,” Aravind Arya, an archaeologist and environmental activist, alleges.

Aravind also points out that the axing could have been avoided if the district authorities were ready to relocate the electricity pole erected adjacent to the tree. “The pole was hindering the construction of the drains. But since its relocation would have cost them a huge amount, in lakhs, they decided to chop the tree instead. Who would cry foul over a tree, after all?”

Lack of staff

Instead of chopping the tree, relocating it should have been a prime concern and probably an alternative solution. “When approached, the DFO purportedly told us that a proper assessment could not be carried out as there was a shortage of staff in the forest department. Also, the authorities told they did not have the proper machinery to relocate the tree to other locality,” Rao alleges.

Despite several attempts, the Warangal DFO was not available for a comment.

“We have ambulances for humans and animals, but there is no rescue vehicle for trees. With the state blowing trumpets over its Haritha Haram mission, such anti-environment acts crush the spirit of such programmes. We have already registered a complaint with the district forest officials regarding the large-scale felling of trees, but are yet to receive any intimation,” says Rao.

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