An order by the chief information commissioner (CIC) to upload information on every tree felling drive in Delhi, since September 2011, has at last been implemented in 2018, with the Delhi government uploading the details on its website recently, revealing that 1,12,169 trees have been cut from 2005 to 2017.
The given information is comprehensive and includes such other aspects like how to apply for tree felling permissions, the number of permissions applied for along with the names of the applicants and so on.
Besides the CIC order, it was thanks to advocate Aditya N Prasad who pursued this CIC order and in 2017 filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking compliance of the CIC order.
Initially, in 2011, a second appeal was filed by Delhi resident Saurabh Sharma, member of the Joint Operation for Social Help, a non-government organization (NGO).
He appealed that the details of the provisions of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act be published on the website of the department.
Mr Sharma wrote in his complaint to the CIC that, “Section 4 of the RTI Act, envisages suo moto disclosures by all public authorities. The forest department, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (India) (GNCTD) deals with the Delhi Tree Preservation Act. If any tree has to be felled, an application has to be moved with the tree officer, and if the tree officer does not respond within 60 days then the permission is deemed to have been granted. Further if there is a request for felling from the same area on more than two occasions, then no permission shall be granted. This process is quite unclear. Furthermore, there is a tree helpline for complaints against tree felling. The details of all these may please be put up on their website, for the general public and for effective monitoring.”
Shailesh Gandhi, in his decision on 5 August 2011 as CIC had ordered the Delhi government to upload the following information from time to time, form 1 September 2011, on its website:
1) Details of permissions given for felling and pruning trees, together with the details of applicants, the number of trees, locations, the status of the application and detailed reasons for approval or rejection of the same. This shall be done for all applications received after 1 September 2011.
2) Details of complaints received on the tree helpline, together with the details of the number of trees threatened/ cut, location(s), the status of the complaint and status of prosecution undertaken till the date of final disposal. This shall be done for all complaints received after 1 September 2011.
3) The department shall also publish details regarding monitoring done, if any, for effective implementation of the directions of the High Court of Delhi in the matter of Kalpavriksh vs Union of India & Others W.P. (C) 1772/2007, with regard to the de-concretisation carried out by various civic agencies. All documents and correspondences done with the civic agencies in this regard shall be published on the website.
4) The department shall also publish on the website the projects/studies/surveys undertaken, if any, regarding biodiversity in the neighbourhood parks. All civic agencies carrying out any construction work shall also display, along with the monetary costs and details of the project, the environmental cost, indicating the number of trees being felled.
Based on Mr Sharma’s complaint, the CIC issued a notice dated 23 February 2011 to the additional principal chief conservator of forests, GNCTD, to provide information on the total number of applications received by the department, seeking permission felling/cutting trees in the year 2009-10 and the total number of complaints received by the department on the tree helpline in the year 2009-10. But CIC did not receive a reply.
CIC Mr Gandhi observed the following in his detailed order:
In the landmark judgement of MC Mehta vs Union of India, the scope of Article 21, which deals with the right to life was enlarged and the right to human health and healthy environment along with the right to enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life were incorporated in its ambit. Right to clean environment was also comprehended as a right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
In the United Nations conference on the human environment, known as the Stockholm Declaration of 1972, one of the principles enunciated at the convention is that the natural resources of the earth, including air, water, land, flora and fauna and specific representative samples of natural ecosystems must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning and management as appropriate.
In the 1992 United Nations conference on environment and development (UNCED), held at Rio De Janiero, it was resolved that ‘environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in the decision-making processes’.
The CIC also observed that, “The object of the Act is to provide for the preservation of trees in the state by regulating the felling of trees and for the plantation of adequate number of trees to restore ecological balance and other matters connected therewith. This law is necessary to prevent ecological disturbance and to maintain ecological balance. The ecological balance has been disturbed due to indiscriminate felling of large numbers of trees in the rural and urban areas due to the growing pace of urbanisation, industrialisation and increasing population, which has led to erratic rainfall, recurring famines and floods, soil erosion, etc. Moneylife contacted Mr Gandhi for his comments on how his eight year old order has been implemented now. He says, “Most RTI users show little enthusiasm to ensure implementation. RTI activists should obtain orders from commissions on important matters and then ensure implementation by following Aditya Prasad's lead.”
Mr Gandhi adds, “Section 18 (1)(f) of the RTI act mandates that it is the duty of the Commission to receive and inquire into a complaint from any person, in respect of any other matter relating to requesting or obtaining access to records under this Act. This is an extremely powerful and significant provision, which must be used by citizens and commissions to get suo moto disclosure of information. I had issued over a hundred orders under this, and had tried to monitor implementation of some of them.”
“I congratulate advocate Aditya Prasad who has shown the commitment of pursuing the implementation. It is an irony that now the CIC refuses to even register a complaint unless an RTI application is first made to a public information officer (PIO). By such regressive behaviour it has reduced its authority. Ratnakar Gaikwad, former CIC of Maharashtra had also given some landmark orders on my complaints,’’ he added.
Some of the important provisions of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, are:-
“Section (9): Procedure for obtaining permission to fell, cut, remove or dispose of, a tree.-
1. Any person desiring to fell or remove or otherwise dispose of, by any means, a tree, shall make an application to the concerned tree officer for permission and such application shall be accompanied by attested copies of such documents as may be prescribed in support of ownership over the land, the number and kind of trees to be cut, their girth measure at a height of 1.85 metres from ground level and the reasons therefore, copy of sajra showing clearly the site and khasra numbers of the property.
2. On receipt of the application, the tree officer may, after inspecting the tree and holding such enquiry as he may deem necessary, either grant permission in whole or in part or for reasons to be recorded in writing, or refuse permission.
Provided that such permission may not be refused if the tree:-
i. is dead, diseased or wind fallen; or
ii. is silviculturally mature, provided it does not occur on a steep slope; or
iii. constitutes a danger to life or property or
iv. constitutes obstruction to traffic; or
v. is substantially damaged or destroyed by fire, lightening, rain or other natural
vi. is required in rural areas to be cut with a view to appropriating the wood or leaves thereof or any part thereof for bona fide use for fuel, fodder, agricultural implements, or other domestic use.
3. The tree officer shall give his decision within sixty days from the date of receipt of the application: Provided that no permission shall be granted to any person from the same area on more than two occasions during the same year, subject to a maximum area of one hectare at a time.
4. If the tree officer fails to communicate his permission on request within the period specified under sub-section (3), the permission referred to in section 8 shall be deemed to have been granted.
5. Every permission granted under this Act shall be in such form and subject to such conditions, including taking of security for ensuring regeneration of the area and replanting of trees or otherwise, as may be prescribed.
Section 10. Obligation to plant trees: Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to fell or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the tree officer: provided that the tree officer may, for reasons to be recorded in writing , permit lesser number of trees to be planted or trees to be planted in any different area or exempt any person from the obligation to plant or tend any tree.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.