The Karnataka Forest Department held a public hearing on Tuesday to listen to what the people have to say about the cutting down of over 1800 trees in the outskirts of Bengaluru, for a road widening project. But the residents and activists who were present at the hearing called it a sham. For one, the public was intimated about the meeting only on Tuesday morning via a newspaper announcement. Secondly, the Forest Department seemed to have made up their mind on the matter, and were simply holding the meeting for the sake of procedure, alleged activists.
The meeting was held on the side of the highway near the Attibele RTO check post. “We were informed about this public hearing only this morning through the papers,” said Prabha Dev, one of the activists who has been closely involved with tree conservation in the city, “The meeting is scheduled on a weekday, in the middle of the day. How many of us are able to travel so far, leaving all our other work without proper intimation? I was out of town and came back once I found out about it.”
There are a total of 1834 trees to be cut in two road widening projects which are namely Attibele to Sarjapura to State Highway 35, and Besthamanahalli to Hoskote Road (National Highway 4). These projects, according to engineers with the KRDCL(Karnataka Road Development Corporation Limited), are to decongest traffic in the city and to connect Anekal, Whitefield, and Hoskote to the Airport.
“These are all old heritage trees that are more than 100 years old. They are mother trees that provide shade and food for numerous birds, monkeys and other animals. Cutting these down only increases the human animal conflict. They also maintain the water table in low rainfall areas. Cutting down such trees must be condemned,” said tree activist Arun Prasad.
The meeting was called for on the basis of a High Court order, which states that the public must have a hearing about whether the trees should be cut or not. However, while the officials took down people's suggestions, they seemed to have already made up their mind that the trees will be cut down, said activists.
A notification came last month regarding the Expert Tree Committee inspection of more than 3,500 trees marked for felling. A Karnataka High Court order was passed, based on a court case by conservationist activists led by Dattatraya T. Devare, which says that no trees could be cut without approval by the expert tree committee, as well as a public consultation. However, the tree committee has not given its report yet.
The public began by questioning the need for a road widening project. “We don’t have any traffic problems. The roads were recently widened, and trees were cut for that also. But those trees were not replaced. Heavy traffic like trucks coming from Tamil Nadu have been redirected to come through Sarjapur due to Metro construction activities. But otherwise there is no problem for traffic as such, only during school timings there is a problem due to parking on the road,” said one resident.
However, officials were not willing to listen to such questions, said activists.
Ashok Narayan, the Environmental Officer with the KRDCL said, “This meeting is only for the trees, and not regarding the road. The tenders have already been passed, the plans are laid out, and we are only waiting to begin the project. We have conducted the surveys for traffic, and we believe that the road needs to be widened.”
When the public asked for the documentation for its justification, they were asked to go to the KRDCL office.
The public also raised the issues of habitat for birds and wildlife, including monkeys that begin raiding crops when there is no food for them in the trees. “The government promises to do replantation of all the trees but we barely see any results. Even if they do tree planting, they do not take care of the trees like they should. Besides, they don’t plant fruit bearing trees or any native trees. Instead what is planted is plantation trees which have high economic value like Teak, Mahogany, and other foreign trees. This is not acceptable as these trees will only be cut for profit in the future, and don't give proper habitat for wildlife,” said Manjunath G, a farmer and resident of Chandapura who was part of the meeting.
Environmentalist Vijay Nishant gave the suggestion that the road should be designed in such a way that there is space to plant more trees. “We know that in urban areas it’s difficult to get even 2-3 meters of extra land. But in rural areas this is not the case. We should have it in the design of the project itself that there is space for trees on both sides of the road as well as in the center of the road. We cannot have rapid tree fellings in our city, in the name of development, or it will result in a situation like Delhi where it is among the most polluted cities in Asia."
Other activists were not at all happy with the way the public consultation was held. “The public hearing is held with only junior level officers like ACF (Additional Conservator of Forests) and AEE (Assistant Executive Engineer). These individuals are lower ranking officers like circle inspectors. They don’t have the power to make any changes or give any concrete solutions. Only IFS officers have any powers, but they don’t come to the public meetings. Instead, they send lower ranking officials who come to the meetings and only say that we do not have the power. Then what is the point of having such consultations? They should not even be considered as valid,” said Arun Prasad, an environmental activist.
Meanwhile, the long-awaited report from the Expert Tree committee is still pending. There is another public consultation, with all the stakeholders, consisting of the expert tree committee and the public, as well as government officials from the Forest Department and the KRDCL who will have another meeting, which will be announced at a later date.