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Essential to strike right balance between environmental conservation & sustainable development: SC constitutes seven-member expert committee for guidelines

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The Supreme Court today has constituted a seven-member expert committee to develop a scientific and policy guidelines to govern policy decisions with respect to cutting of trees for developmental projects while stating it is essential to strike right balance between environmental conservation and sustainable development. 

The Supreme Court bench led by CJI SA Bobde, Justice AS Bopanna and Justice V. Ramasubramanian pronounced its order on the plea filed by the “Association For Protection of Democatic Rights” challenging the authority of Government of West Bengal to fell the trees, in order to construct Road over Bridges (ROBs) and widen the Roads. The Supreme Court has considered the issue “whether we should allow the Government of West Bengal to tell the trees, in order to construct Road Over Bridges (ROBs) and widen the road?”. 

The Top Court has noted, “it is, however, undisputed that the ROBs can only be constructed after felling of trees, ages of which are said to be up to 150 years. As per the Report of the Expert Committee submitted before us, primarily, about 50 trees have already been felled and potentially another 306 trees are to be felled. As per the Report, many of the trees can be called ‘historical trees’, which have ‘irreplaceable value’ and compensatory afforestation cannot replace trees of this value.” 

The State of West Bengal pleaded that ROBs are necessitated to prevent accidents, which are several, over the past few years.

The Court said that, “The right to clean and healthy environment has been recognized as the fundamental right under Article 21 of theConstitution of India. Article 48-A imposes duty upon the State to endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the Country. In addition to this, India is also a party to international treaties, agreements and conferences and has committed itself to sustainable development and growth. This legal framework indicates that sustainable development must remain at the heart of any development policy implemented by the state. It is essential to strike the right balance between environmental conservation and protection on one hand, and the right to development on the other, while articulating the doctrine of sustainable development. We may add that in our opinion conservation and development need not be viewed as binaries, but as complementary strategies that weave into one another. In other words, conservation of nature must be viewed as part of development and not as a factor stultifying development.”

The bench observed that if the trees must at all be fell for developing infrastructure it must happen in a scientific way.

Therefore the bench said that, “It is imperative to make a realistic assessment of the economic value of a tree, which may be permitted to fell, with reference to its value to environment and its longevity, with regard to factors such as 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 Court appointed a committee which will be headed by Dr. MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, a wildlife expert and former Chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India. The following are the other members of the Committee.

(i) Dr. MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, wildlife expert and former Chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India – Chairman of the Committee;

(ii) Jigmet Takpa, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change- Member Secretary of the Committee;

(iii) Arun Singh Rawat, DG, Indian Council for Forestry Research-Member;

(iv) Prof. Sandeep Tambe, (Indian Forest Service), currently working as Professor of Forestry at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal- Member;

(v) Gopal Singh Rawat, former Dean and Director, Wildlife Institute of India- Member;

(vi) Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, an expert in ecological economics- Member and

(vii) Pradeep Krishen, Environmentalist- Member.

Thereafter, the court also appointed Advocate K Parameshwar as Amicus Curiae to assist the Bench in the case.

The Court directed the committee to discuss and recommend on the following mandate:

(a) Develop a set of scientific and policy guidelines that shall govern decision making with respect to cutting of trees for developmental projects.

(b) These guidelines may specify the species of trees in categories based upon their environmental values considering the age and girth of the trees etc.

(c) The guidelines may provide special treatment for geographical area or eco-sensitive area, they may identify areas which need to be regulated and even identify a minimum threshold beyond which the guidelines will apply.

(d) The guidelines shall prescribe a mechanism for assessment of both intrinsic and instrumental value of the trees, based not only on the value of timber, but also the ecosystem services rendered by the trees and its special relevance, if any, to the habitat of other living organisms, soil, flowing and underground water.

(e) The guidelines shall also mandate rules regarding alternate routes/sites for roads/projects, and possibilities for using alternate modes of transport like railways or water-ways.

(f) The guidelines shall also prescribe the mode of compensation financial and otherwise, the stage of depositing such compensation and the process that governs the computation and recovery. In this regard, the committee may consider the existing regulatory framework regarding calculation of Net Present Value (NPV) and may suggest necessary modification.

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(g) In addition, the guidelines shall also specify the manner and mechanism of compensatory afforestation to be carried out using the deposited compensation, consistent with the native ecosystem, habitat and species.

(h) The Committee may consider the need for any permanent expert body and its proposed structural form.

(i) Any other issue incidental to the aforesaid objectives.

Read the order here;

Association-for-Protection-of-Democratic-Rights-v-State-of-West-Bengal

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