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No beating about the bush.
Citizens in various cities have used the RTI Act effectively to stall felling of trees or halt their abuse. You can do it too
Whether it is a Delhi High Court order or the Delhi or Maharashtra Tree Act, preservation of trees is mandatory and any felling requires legal permission from the local governing body. However, most of us tend to simply express sympathy and anger and feel helpless if we see someone axing trees.
Instead of feeling helpless, you need to know that law is by your side and the use of RTI Act can put you in the role of a watchdog. These two examples would inspire you:
1. Trees saved from suffocation in Delhi
Three years back, Padmavati Dwivedi, a resident of an upwardly mobile neighbourhood in Delhi was aghast to watch her neighbours put tiles and concretise the area around the trunk of some trees. This was detrimental to the trees as they were unable to absorb water or breathe. It also led to a few trees being brutally uprooted when a thunderstorm hit the city.
When she argued with her neighbours, they put her down saying, concretisation helps in making the area look clean and also allows for more parking space. Ms Dwivedi, realizing the agony caused to the trees, approached the officers of the Municipal Corporation Delhi (MCD) but her plea fell on deaf ears. She then faxed letters week after week to the chief minister, who finally heard her complaint. The MCD authorities sent their men to de-congest trees from their concrete boundaries. Around a 100 trees were freed from strangulation.
A group of youngsters under the umbrella of “Delhi Green Blogs” (they have an impressive website too—www.delhigreens.com) were inspired by Ms Dwivedi’s campaign. Students of a bio-technology of a Delhi college, who had also earlier written to the MCD and PWD (Public Works Department) to remove concretization around trees but did not get a reply decided to pursue it through the RTI Act.
One of the members, Ankit Srivastava, stated in the blog that, “after reading about Ms Dwivedi’s successful campaign in the blog, we felt really motivated and started filing RTI applications about the status of work of de-concretisation of trees and reason for non-compliance of court orders.” The students asked for inspection of trees which the MCD claimed it had de-concretised and action taken against officials who did not follow the direction of the high court. Along with the RTI applications, they attached relevant rules and court orders like the Delhi High Court order of 2007; Delhi High Court order of 29 October 2009; ministry of urban development guidelines 2000; Delhi Tree Preservation Act, 1994 and Supreme Court order—all which clearly declare and deliberate damaging of trees, as an offence.
The PIO (public information officer) of the MCD gave evasive replies forcing the students to go in for a second appeal to the Central Information Commissioner (CIC). CIC Shailesh Gandhi gave the order in favour of the students. Subsequently, over 1,000 trees were freed from life-threatening concretization in various sectors of Delhi. The blog now proudly draws your attention with this statement: “Thousands of trees can be saved in just Rs10 (RTI fees)”.
Did you know that, as per the guidelines framed by the urban development ministry way back in 2000, an area of 6x6 feet around trees must be un-cemented, in order to let them grow. A high court order too directs the same. Therefore, you took can take up this campaign in your city.
Last week, a huge peepal tree came crashing down in a public place in Bangalore, due to it being seated in concrete, at its roots. Environmentalists stated that the health and strength of a tree depends on its roots and if there is no space for the roots to grow, trees can pose a danger to the people if they suddenly get uprooted. In 2010, a stalwart tree in Kolkata in front of the Academy of Fine Arts was suffocated to death because the PWD ensconced the tree’s roots in concrete to impress guests coming to the film festival. The tree died, as it was denied food from the soil around it.
2. How Badlapur residents stalled tree felling by forest department
Sometime in 2010, the Kulgan-Badlapur Municipal Council near Mumbai decided to chop 72 trees to make way for an administrative office of the forest department. Residents protested stating that the 1.75 acre of lush natural park was the only lung of the town. They reiterated that stalwart trees of tamarind, peepal, gulmohur, saag, jambul and jackfruit adorned the area and it was ideal for conversion into a botanical garden. It also acted as a barrier to industrial pollution in Badlapur.
Environmentalist and activist Jayashree Jambhale decided to invoke the RTI Act along with her colleagues of Paryavaran Savrakshan Sanghatana (PSS). In the RTI application, they asked for the total number of trees in the park and details of correspondence between the municipality, urban development department and the forest department (to which the park belonged). The RTI reply stated that there were around 100 trees in the park which were around 100 years old. Correspondence revealed that, 72 trees were requested for felling without giving the reason that they were to make way for a concrete structure. Environmentalists argued with the municipality and forest authorities that there were more than 30 barren government lands existing for construction of the official complex. They managed to stall tree felling.
You can do it, too, by filing a RTI application on similar lines. Pune Tree Watch has posted the following on its website to make you understand the power of the Maharashtra Tree Act:
Section on Restriction on Felling of Trees and Liability for Planting and Preservations of Trees. (Chapter V of the MTA)
(1) The basis of this act is that no person can fell any tree or cause any tree to be felled, whether of ownership or otherwise, in an urban area without seeking the permission of the Tree Authority (TA).
(2)Who would this include? And how does one then go about if the need for felling a tree arises?
This would include all Pune citizens, officers of the urban local authority, state or central government officials. If a tree needs to be felled then permission to do so must be gained from the TA through an application. This application must include the description of the tree, location, a site plan and reasons for wanting the tree to be felled. There is a form available at the Garden Department’s office for the same.
(3)What is the procedure that follows thereof?
a) Within 30 days of receiving the application, a Tree Officer must personally inspect the tree, hold an enquiry and report back to the TA. Adequate public notice is to be given by the Tree Officer by advertising in the local newspapers. In Pune these are done on a rotation basis by the PRO, as well as a notice must be fixed on the tree itself. The TA must give or refuse permission within 60 days from receipt of application with/without conditions. Such permission shall not be refused if, in the opinion of the TA, the tree is dead, diseased, wind-fallen, poses a danger to life or property, and/or obstructs traffic. However, no tree shall be felled until 15 days after such permission is given. If any objection is received against such permission, the matter shall be placed before the TA for reconsideration. A decision shall be taken within two weeks after giving a hearing to the person who has raised the objection. In Pune, one can raise an objection through a written letter submitted to the Tree Officer or to the Tree Authority.
b) The TA must submit a report of permissions granted once every six months to the urban local authority.
(4) What happens if the TA does not respond to the application?
The applicant must wait for a period of 60 days from the date of submission of the application. If the TA does not inform the applicant of their decision within this period, the application shall be deemed as granted. In Pune there is not a single case where tree felling has happened when the TA has failed to inform the applicant.
(5) What are the conditions involved when such permission is granted?
When the permission is granted, it is subject to condition that the applicant shall plant another three trees of the same or suitable species on the same site or another suitable place within 30 days from date on which tree is felled, or the time given by the Tree Officer. The individual is also asked to deposit Rs2,000 per tree that is felled. A periodical inspection is taken on by the staff. This amount is refunded after two years, if the trees are growing satisfactorily.
(1)What if any land does not have a sufficient number of trees?
If the TA believes that the number of trees in any plot of land is insufficient according to the prescribed standards that the TA has developed, the owner or occupier may be required, after a hearing, to plants many trees as specified.
(2) Any order received by the owner/occupier should be complied with, within 90 days of the receipt of the order.
(1) What if a tree has fallen due to natural forces?
If a tree falls on a property due to natural causes (rain, fire, lightening or wind), the Tree Officer, on the basis of an enquiry and after giving reasonable opportunity to the owner/occupier of that property, may then by an order require the owner/occupier to replace the fallen tree of the same or similar species on the same or another suitable site.
(1) What are the duties of the owner/occupier/applicant in the above cases?
In all the above cases, it is considered the duty of the owner/occupier of the land, who is directed to plant a tree, to ensure that the tree grows properly, is well preserved and report twice yearly for three years. It is also the duty of the owner/occupier of the land to preserve all other trees on the existing land, from the date on which this Act has come into force.
A written report is submitted. If the growth is satisfactory the deposit is refunded.
(2) Does the applicant have to make any payments for the same?
No, there is no payment involved but the owner/occupier may be required to deposit or specified sum of money with the Tree Officer to ensure compliance with the order.
(1) Is there any provision, which allows for the adoption of trees?
Yes, individuals/corporate bodies/institutions can get permission from the TA to adopt any tree for a specific period and be responsible for the tree’s maintenance and preservation.
(2) Can the applicant also seek to adopt a tree, instead of planting new trees?
Persons felling trees may adopt trees in lieu of planting more trees—the trees to be adopted must be less than a year old, and must not be less than the number of trees required to be planted. The person shall be responsible for the maintenance and preservation for a period specified by the TA.
What are the steps taken by the TA, when the orders are not complied with?
Failure to comply with TA orders ends in forfeit of deposit, in full or part. In addition the TA can recover the expenditure incurred by it for processing the case, from the owner/occupier. For the purpose of recovery of this amount, the TA shall have same powers as the urban local authority for the purpose of recovery of arrears of a property tax/betterment charges or other duties levied by the urban local authority under the relevant Act.
Can there be appeals against the orders made under Sections 2 and 3?
Those ordered to act in specified ways under Sections 2 and 3 by the Tree Officer may appeal to the TA within 15 days of receipt of order—appeals must be decided by the TA within 60 days of receipt. The TA’s decisions shall be final and not questionable in any court of law.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also 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 on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected])
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