For the past few weeks, 51-year-old Lakshmi Tambe, a business woman living alone in her house in Thirumullavaram in Kollam district, has been worried.
What has disturbed her once-peaceful life in a house nearly 9 km away from Kollam city is the thought of protecting the trees she has passionately nurtured over one and half years. Lakshmi alleges that Health Department officials of Kollam City Corporation misled her into cutting off the bamboo trees in her compound.
Lakshmi told TNM that on September 27, four officers from the Corporationsâ€™ Divisional office in Mulamkadakom came to her house and directed her to cut down the trees.
â€śWithout telling me who they are or why they have come, the officers walked into my compound and on my repeated queries, they said that they have come on the District Collector's orders, to ask me to cut down all the trees in my backyard. Not knowing what exactly was happening, I soon arranged to cut down the trees,â€ť said Lakshmi.
Lakshmi went to the Divisional Health office the same day.
â€śAt the office, I asked for the letter which they claimed to have got from the District Collector directing me to cut off trees. The officers questioned my right to get the collectorâ€™s order and said that I was not authorised to get it. They asked me to apply through Right to Information Act if I need the details,â€ť she said.
However, what happened two days after this, further aggravated Lakshmi's plight.
A full-grown golden shower tree in her compound began to wither away. In just a week, Lakshmi said, the tree completely decayed.
"That was nothing but chemical killing, something that is not possible without entering my compound. I am at the office during the day and I don't know who must have done so," she said.
Disturbed, Lakshmi decided to reach out to the District Collector. However, she was taken aback, when the District Collector Dr S Karthikeyan told her that he hadn't issued any such orders.
Lakshmi proceeded to file an RTI query and filed a complaint against the four officers at the West police station.
Lakshmi is into cashew nut business and has been living in the house for the past 18 months. Her husband died 11 years ago and daughter is a student in Netherlands. Lakshmi had faced a similar experience in January this year when one of her neighbours complained against growing of bamboo trees in the compound.
â€śSome of the people here believe that bamboo trees attract bad things in life. The neighbor shouted in front of my house. A group of women came together and asked me to chop the treesâ€ť, she said.
At that the time the police intervened and convinced the neighbours that trees can't be cut down unless they are harmful to life or property, she added.
Officials paint a different version
Suresh Babu, one of the officers who went to her house told TNM that their action was based on a complaint by one of her neighbours.
â€śThe complaint was given to the District Collector and was forwarded to the City Corporation. The Corporation forwarded to us. The complaint was from a woman living in a three and half cents of land near her house. She said in the complaint the branches of the bamboo trees were leaning on her house causing much inconvenience and snakes were a common sight in the neighbourhood. We didnâ€™t ask her to chop the trees, but only the branches that causing trouble to the neighbor. How can we ask to cut down trees?â€ť Suresh asked.
The Health Inspector adds that the Collector might not be aware of such a complaint.
â€śNot that all the complaints from the public are seen by him. The procedure is to forward it to departments concerned. Also we are not authorized to give copy of the complaint. She has given query through Right to Information and our office will provide the response,â€ť he said.
Vinod M, Additional Sub Inspector West Police Station said that since she has cut down the trees already, the issue stands resolved.
â€śWe are ready to give her any kind of protection. She has the right to grow trees in her compound. Some of the locals said that growing bamboo tress is not good for them, which led to all this,â€ť he said.
Lakshmi is now planning to approach State Human Rights Commission after she receives response on her RTI query. On Monday, she filed complaints with Kollam Police Superintendent Ajitha Beegum and Mayor Rajendra Babu saying that the officers' act was unauthorized.