Karnataka government has found a back-door to ensure citizens cannot protests their infrastructure projects that will lead to the cutting of several trees at a time.
On February 9, the Karnataka Law Minister introduced a proposal for amending the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act 1976 in the state Assembly.
The amendment proposes the denotification of 50 species of trees from the ambit of the Act. If the amendment is passed, the BBMP, or any other governmental agency, will not require the permission of the Forest Department to chop off these trees. They also will not need to hold a public consultation before felling them.
Environmentalists and civic activists are angry with the state government’s move, and are alleging that the amendment aims to circumvent the law and cut trees for big infrastructure projects.
Activists also allege that this is a move to make way for the steel flyover and other infrastructure projects to come up and eliminate citizens’ voices against such projects.
“According to the Karnataka Preservation of Trees (Amendment) Act, 2014, the BBMP need not call for a public consultation if the number of trees to be felled is less than 50. This applies only if the trees fall under the ambit of the Act as protected species. The denotification of 50 species of trees means that the steel flyover, the railway line in Kodagu and several other infrastructure projects can come up now, and the citizens will have no say in it,” Vijay Nishanth, the tree doctor, says.
The proposed amendment lists 50 species of trees to be removed from the ambit of the act. Shockingly, 24 out of the 50 species of trees listed for denotification are found in abundance in the areas where the controversial steel flyover was proposed.
These include coconut, gulmohar, eucalyptus, silver oak, sausage tree, subabul, sapota, Indian cork tree, copper pod, mast tree, paradise tree, african tulip, raintree, gold rain tree, christmas tree, mulberry, neem, tree of gold, pink tabebuia and pink poui.
The proposed amendment, however, states the cause for such a step is due to requests by farmers, who want to cultivate crops in areas which are densely populated by the 50 species of trees.
“These trees are mainly found in urban areas and were cultivated over 200 years ago only for ornamental purposes. It does not clearly state whether it is applicable in rural or urban areas. Besides, when asked, the forest department says that they have no track of the number of such requests they have got from the farmers for the denotification of such species. There is no proof that the farmers have asked for it,” says Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group.
Leo maintains that the amendment will give the Forest Department the power to denotify any tree they wish to in the future.
“If this happens, then urban forest cover will disappear and gradually other forest areas as well and this will lead to imbalance in local ecosystems. In urban areas, especially in Bengaluru, anybody can fell whatever tree they want without permission and there will be no accountability. Besides, farmers do not plant African tulip, gulmohar, raintrees and the other ornamental species listed in the proposed amendment. This is just a way to create a loophole in the act,” he adds.
Activists say that the proposed amendment will make way for chopping hundreds of trees in the planned residential and commercial areas in the draft revised master plan 2031 (RMP 2031).
“Successive governments over the past 10 years have been trying to denotify so many species of trees, which take decades to grow. There seems to be no opposition to this. Whenever the topic of trees and increase in salaries for MLAs comes up, even the opposition in the Assembly happily agree. This is just a way to subvert the law. If you look at the RMP 2031, there are several areas in east and north Bengaluru where new layouts have been proposed. This will give BBMP free reign to chop all trees and destroy the environment,” says Tara Krishnaswamy of Citizens for Bengaluru.
Is the government trying find a loophole to bring back the steel flyover project?
A portion of the steel flyover was proposed from Basaveshwara Circle till the base of the Guttahalli flyover as it descends onto Bellary Main Road.
According to a report published by the Azim Premji Foundation, there are 752 trees and 204 saplings in these areas of which the mast tree and large leaved mahagony were found in abundance. What is important to note is that these two species of trees are also listed in the amendment.
These areas also have several canopy trees including the gulmohar, paradise tree, neem and yellow cassia which have been listed in the 50 trees proposed to be denotified.
The most number of trees found in the proposed steel flyover area, from Guttahalli to the base of the Hebbal flyover, are the Indian cork tree, mulberry, tree of gold, African tulip and yellow cassia, silver oak, subabul, Indian mast tree and neem. These trees are also listed in the proposed amendment.
Activists say that depleting greenery will accentuate the “heat-island effect” and will lead to the increase in consumption of water.
Not the first time
The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976 was enacted during Devaraj Urs’ Chief Ministership. This act became the centre of the cause environmentalists fought in the 1990s when Bengaluru witnessed massive urbanisation, says Vijay Nishanth.
With road-widening projects and construction of Namma Metro requiring the chopping of a large number of trees, the Environment Support Group filed an public interest litigation (PIL) in May 2008 with the Karnataka High Court.
Despite the High Court’s orders, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government with BS Yeddyurappa as its Chief Minister, tried to introduce loopholes into the the KPTA in 2010. The government had then been accused of enabling the timbre mafia.
“The 2010 amendment proposed to denotify 30 species of trees. These included mango, banyan and several other important species. There was a lot of outrage back then and the government withdrew the amendment,” Vijay Nishanth said.
In October 2012, a bench comprising Karnataka Chief Justice Vikramjit Sen and Justice BV Nagarathna had said that the “public must be made aware of a proposal for removal of trees by issuance of public notice so that the objections can be invited. The Act does not provide any machinery in this regard.”
Shockingly, in 2014, the Congress government under the Chief Ministership of Siddaramaiah, amended the act during the Assembly session in December of that year without holding public consultation. The amendment was later gazetted in January 2015.
The PIL was dismissed in June 2015 on technical grounds that the petitioner had vested interests in the issue.
Activists to protest the move
Citizens for Bengaluru has started a Tweetathon where members of the organisation tweeted to the MLAs of their respective areas, asking them to vote against the amendment.
“What is the point of electing a leaders if they do not adhere to the requests of the voters? We do not want such leaders. We also submitted a memorandum to the BJP today asking them to oppose the amendment in the Assembly when the issue come up for discussion,” Tara Krishnaswamy said.
According to Vijay Nishanth, several activists have planned to organise protests and put pressure on the government to withdraw the amendment.
“We will not let this pass. The Assembly session will go on till the end of this month, we will pressurise the government,” he added.