Climate Coma

Over the past couple of decades, most Indian cities have lost their tree cover on account of urban developmental projects and rampant commercialisation that were planned with little regard for the environment.

In April this year, “Warrior Moms”, a mothers-led initiative to fight for children’s right to breathe clean air across India, released a report titled “Tree Felling Permitted in Delhi (2015-2021) under Section 29 of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994”. According to it, over 60,000 trees were permitted to be felled by the government between 2015 and 2021 on account of various developmental projects. The figure is distressing considering the fact that Delhi is experiencing severe pollution issues and an increasing number of inhabitants are suffering from breathing disorders.

Expressing concern over the large scale felling of trees, the Delhi High Court recently ordered a stay on further felling till June in order to mitigate the national capital’s daily ecological and environmental degradation.

The development ensued during the hearing of a contempt case concerning glaring victimisation of trees on account of construction work being carried out by the Public Works Department (PWD) along Vikas Marg in East Delhi. The Court of Justice Najmi Waziri was apprised that over 29,000 trees were permitted to be cut in the past three years in the city.

The Court said that there was “no other way” to mitigate Delhi’s daily ecological and environmental degradation. “It would, therefore, be in the fitness of things, in the public interest as well as for the sake of the environment for the present and future generations that tree-felling in Delhi is not permitted till the next date, so as to ensure that felling is done only when it is fully ensured by the applicant that the trees would at least be transplanted,” the Court observed.

“It is evident that the large scale denudation of fully grown trees only worsens the ecological balance of the city. The air pollution needs to be mitigated on an urgent basis and trees are great source of mitigation in this regard,” Justice Waziri said while noting that if the decline of tree cover is not arrested, Delhi may inexorably recede into an environmental coma, from where it would take decades to recover.

In April, the Court expressed its displeasure over felling of fully grown trees in Delhi after it was informed that every hour, a tree is being cut in the city under official sanction and asked the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) to file an affidavit stating the number of trees permitted to be cut down in last three years and the number that were transplanted.

“This is a worrying issue because on the one side endeavour is said to be underway to maintain and augment the green cover of Delhi while simultaneously fully grown trees are allowed to be cut down. This self-defeating exercise by the Forest Department, GNCTD needs to be arrested at the earliest,” said the Court in its April 28 order.

A Status Report filed by DCF (Central) in furtherance of the Court’s order revealed that 29,946 trees were permitted to be cut in the past three years, of which 16,456 were transplanted. However, as the said status report lacked details apropos the girth or age of the trees that were allowed to be cut, the Court directed the DCF to file a detailed affidavit in this regard. In respect of trees that were allegedly transplanted, the Court said that there is nothing on record to show whether they have survived or not.

Furthermore, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests was directed to ensure creation of a prominent link which shall be out in the public domain to facilitate in filing of complaints by those who wish to intimate the Tree Officer or the Forest Department regarding victimisation or felling of trees, and to also make available sufficient facility for uploading photographs and other details in support of such intimation.

The Court, in April, observed that under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, preservation of trees is the primary objective and the Tree Officer, being a repository of public faith and trust, is duty-bound to assess the necessity of cutting a tree for a project before granting any permission. This will ensure that trees are not being cut needlessly or wantonly. The Court then directed the Tree Officer(s) to give due consideration to transplantation of each tree that is sought to be cut before granting any further permission for cutting of trees.

In 2020, the Delhi Government notified the first-of-its-kind “Tree Transplantation Policy” according to which any construction or development project, a minimum of 80% of the trees affected should be transplanted to another location.

Such transplantation of trees has occurred in other parts of India. Recently, a mass tree transplantation drive was undertaken along Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli-Tenkasi State Highway, wherein more than 1,300 trees were transplanted along the highway.

When the Mumbai Metro-3 project was underway linking the southern end of the city to its western suburbs, around 1,072 trees felled in Aarey Colony. These too were transplanted. In a similar manner, the construction of a metro line to connect North and South Nagpur led to the transplantation of around 21 trees in 2019. 

Countries such as the US and UK follow a systematic approach while carrying out transplantation by way of identifying trees which can do well in this process. The transplanting process requires cutting many of the branches of the tree, leaving only a small shoot for revival. Also, proper maintenance and constant monitoring is required to ensure survival of the transplanted trees.

The right to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. Furthermore, the State is mandated to protect and improve the environment of the country under Article 48A of the Constitution. Stressing upon the preservation of trees, the apex court, in March 2021, constituted a seven-member committee to suggest a set of scientific and policy guidelines that should govern decision making when cutting trees for developmental projects, and to specify the manner of compensatory afforestation to be carried out.

The top court, in its order in March 2021, observed: “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.”

—By Banshika Garg and India Legal Bureau