Pune: High Court Stops Tree Felling For Widening Of Ganeshkhind Road, Forms Committee Of Experts

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Mubarak Ansari

Pune, 22nd December 2023: The Bombay High Court has formed a committee to study and recommend the best possible plan so that maximum number of trees can be saved on one hand and the road widening and Pune Metro Rail project work is also executed on the Ganeshkhind Road. The committee has to submit report within two months and till then no trees shall be cut.

The order was passed yesterday by a bench comprising Chief Justice Arif Doctor and Devendra Kumar Upadhyay. “Having regard to the statutory nature of the guidelines issued by the Indian Roads Congress (IRC-103-2022), we are of the opinion that with a view to examine the feasibility as to whether by altering the alignment of the road and/or its design, the trees can be saved, the matter may be referred to a Court appointed Committee of experts, which will include the officers of the PMC, PMRDA and the representatives of the petitioners as well.”

A public interest litigation (PIL) has been filed by an NGO, namely, Parisar Sanrakshan Sanwardhan Sanstha and two individuals, Ameet Singh and Hema Chari who are the residents of Pune, raising concern about felling of trees which is taking place on account of a road widening project and Metro Rail project. The road widening work is being executed in respect of Ganeshkhind road in the city and the Metro Rail is also being laid on the said road. Road widening is to take place from Sancheti hospital to Pune University chowk and is aimed at widening of the width of the existing road of 36 meters to 45 meters.

The petitioner had earlier approached the High Court through another PIL pointing out various flaws in the order passed by the Tree Authority, whereby permission for felling of trees coming in the road widening project was accorded. The said PIL petition was finally disposed of by the Court by an order, dated 12th October 2023 with certain directions. The direction, in fact, contained in the said order was to the effect that the Tree Authority shall take decision afresh in respect of the prayer made by the Municipal Corporation for felling the trees only by strictly observing the various statutory provisions of the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975 (hereafter referred to as “the Act of 1975). It is in purported compliance of the said order dated, 12th October 2023 passed by this Court that the permission to fell trees has been accorded by the Tree Authority vide order dated 9th December 2023, which is under challenge before in the current PIL petition. By the impugned order, while according permission, the Tree Authority has permitted that 33 trees may be cut completely and 52 trees are to be replanted. While passing the said order, dated 9th December 2023, the Tree Authority has also provided that 2 trees are to be saved, i.e., neither felled nor replanted from permission. The said permission has been accorded subject to the condition that 1689 new trees of local species should be planted.

The National Green Tribunal at Delhi had taken suo motu cognizance of the issue and subsequently, such proceedings have been transferred to its Bench at Pune. During the pendency of the said proceedings, petitioners 2 and 3 approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) at Pune Bench seeking an injunction against Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority (PMRDA) restraining them from proceeding ahead with the project of road widening as also the construction Metro Rail, however, the said injunction has been denied by the NGT vide its order, dated 11th December 2023. The NGT has further observed in the said order and in subsequent orders that it shall monitor these two projects. 

The petitioners, thereafter, approached the Supreme Court by filing Civil Appeal Diary No. 52331 of 2023, which has been disposed of finally by means of an order, dated 15th December 2023 permitting the petitioners to move this Court either in substantive proceedings or by moving an application in Public Interest Litigation No. 163 of 2023 so as to draw the attention of this Court to the manner in which its directions have been complied with by the PMC. 

The petitioners have filed the current PIL petition challenging the order dated 9th December 2023 passed by the Tree Authority, whereby permission to fell certain number of trees has been accorded as also permission to relocate/replant certain number of trees has also been granted. “The Tree Authority, while passing the order, has not taken into consideration the relevant factors which vitiates the permission.” 

The court observed that PMC has not GIS based survey as mandated by the law, which could have helped the Tree Authority in deciding the order for tree felling.

Accordingly, the High Court has appointed the following Committee which shall comprise of: – 

(i) A higher-level expert working in the field of road construction at Central Road Research Institute (a CSIR Institute), New Delhi to be appointed by its Director; 

(ii) Head of the Department of Environmental Engineering or any other related Department or any of the nominee of the Head of such Department of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai; 

(iii) A nominee of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to be appointed by its Director; 

(iv) Additional Municipal Commissioner, Pune Municipal Corporation; 

(v) Additional Commissioner, Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority;

 (vi) An expert in Town Planning, Urban Planning and Urban Studies Department, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai to be nominated by its Director. 

  • The Additional Commissioner, PMC shall be the convener of the Committee and shall be responsible for convening the meetings of the Committee and for placing all the necessary documents and material before the Committee. 
  • Ranjit Gadgil, the authorised representative of petitioner no. 1 shall be permitted to participate in the meetings of the said Committee and his views on the issues to be deliberated by the Committee shall also be taken into consideration. He shall be given prior information of all the meetings of the Committee by its convener. 
  • The Committee shall consider, study and recommend the best possible plan so that maximum number of trees can be saved on one hand and the road widening and Metro Rail project work is also executed. The Committee shall complete its task as above as early as possible, preferably within a period of 2 (two) months. The report of the Committee shall be submitted to the Court through the learned counsel representing the Municipal Corporation by the next date of listing. The entire expenses to be incurred to complete the above task shall be borne jointly by the PMC and the PMRDA.  
    • Till the next date of listing, no felling of trees shall take place. 
    • The next date of hearing is 28th February 2024.

Ameet Singh, who had approached the Supreme Court said, “there is no reason why Pune cannot have world class roads. Trees coexisting with people movement is a worldwide phenomenon. Other cities celebrate their old growth trees while we chop them down. We need to conserve our trees through studied alternatives. It’s easy to do, if application of mind is used. The high court has now upheld that the IRC guidelines are law and should be applied across all roads in Pune. If only our cities engineers apply their minds to grow the liveablity of our city over the width and length of our roads and sizes of our buildings. Today, It’s best we all take a pause and reframe our strategy to incorporate how to give ourselves clean air, pure water and uncontaminated soil first, over roads and buildings.” 

Talking to the media, Hema Chari, a renowned environmentalist and one of the petitioners said, “Without trees, cities will not be livable. Preservation of Pune’s trees is essential to their survival. The ongoing felling of mature old trees is not only harming our ecosystem, it is also a huge loss of our cultural legacy”. 

She added, “The road widening projects in Pune are putting a large portion of the city’s tree line and greenery at risk”. Hema sees this action as particularly short-sighted because it would diminish the city’s already depleted green cover.

According to the petitioner, cutting down trees to widen roads is not a sustainable practice. It is time for governments, authorities, and city planners to unlearn and relearn road design. 

Hema emphasises the need to enhance the public transportation system. According to her, infrastructure should not be designed with private motorised vehicles as the primary transport. Prioritising walking, cycling, and public transport is a sustainable solution. 

She further added, “the government must immediately establish robust policy and strict guidelines to be followed so that there is no tree felling and no harm to the environment and public health while widening city roads”.

 “Paryavaran Doot” awardee and renowned environmentalist Sathya Natarajan reminded: “Trees say an important thing. However higher you grow, keep yourself grounded. However high we grow in our GDP, if we do not have feet (read trees) on ground, we totally fail to grow as a community.” 

He added, “Do not pin us under bureaucracy or debate, simply follow the Tree Act of 1975 that mandates a tree every 10 mtrs along each side of the road”.

“The more the road we build, the more the trees we grow. Isn’t that a simple thumb rule to follow?”, asks Sathya.

Gangotri Chanda, another concerned citizen, said “It seems like the ‘development’ is being preferred all the way everywhere over the ecological maintenance”. She is concerned about no one talking of ‘sustainable development’. “How can developments be done increasingly within the limited resources?”, she asked.

She objected to some media reports restricting the HC’s stay order to a particular road as “misleading”. She clarified, “the High Court order mandates strict compliance of Tree Census with Geo-tagging across the city and Indian Road Congress guidelines for Road widening. As such, no tree within the city limits can be felled unless and until the Committee has completed its task to the Court’s satisfaction”.

Advocate Rajendra Kumar Kale who had represented Ameet Singh and others before the NGT, along with being an applicant on behalf of The Secular Community India Chapter as the Chairman, said that the citizens’ position stands vindicated by the High Court’s judgment. “The stay applies not just for one road, but across the city. While the next hearing is pending before the High Court, PMC cannot fell a single tree for road widening anywhere in the city limits”, he said.

The advocate further added that the battle to save trees through arbitrary orders is only half won. The team is gearing up to make further submissions before the NGT to streamline all the processes and procedures to ensure justice. 

He added, “One aspect that remains to be resolved is, the controversial interpretation of Section 3 of the Tree Act. If Tree Authority is not chaired by Metropolitan Commissioner then lakhs of trees in the 820 villages added to the metropolitan region remain orphaned.”

Chaitanya Ket, a tree activist, said that the PMC Road Department is a major contributor to tree felling across the city, primarily for road widening and development purposes. “During their surveys, the department meticulously examines buildings, sewage lines, and water lines, yet curiously omits an assessment of existing trees” he said. “The Road Department establishes the road layout before seeking permission from the PMC Tree Authority, a process that does not consider the potential preservation of trees through adjustments in the road design” he added further.

Ket observed the lack of consultation with the Tree Authority during the road design and layout finalization phase. “By incorporating the insights of the Tree Authority at an earlier stage, we could potentially save a substantial number of trees” he said. Also, Ket pointed out that this gap in communication between PMC departments results in the unnecessary felling of trees, beings that cannot advocate for themselves. He believes It is imperative to bridge this communication divide to ensure a more thoughtful and sustainable approach to urban development

Advocate Manasi Thakare said that urban trees play a crucial role in mitigating air pollution, providing shade, reducing the urban heat island effect, and enhancing overall environmental quality. Saving these trees should be everyone’s priority in the crucial times of climate change. 

While talking about urban development she explains why it should consider climate change impacts. This includes designing infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events and implementing measures to reduce gas emissions. Involving communities in decision-making processes fosters a sense of responsibility and ensures that development meets local needs while minimizing negative environmental impacts.

She appreciates The order given by the Bombay High Court. 

“We are planning to save all the trees of Pune city by coordinating with the PMRDA Authorities and PMC officials” she added further.