On the eve of the World Biodiversity Day, over a hundred individuals and representatives of a wide variety of organisations from across Bangalore came together in front of Aranya Bhavan, Hq. Of Karnataka State Forest Department, to protest a proposed regressive amendment to the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act. If passed, the amendment would remove 41 trees from the protection accorded by this law. As a result felling these trees would not require prior permission of the Tree Officer – a provision that acted as a strong deterrent to reckless and wanton felling of trees in forests, rural and urban areas since the law was passed in 1976. The amendment would effectively defeat the very purpose for which this law was passed.
With bold posters and banners calling out to "Axe the Amendment. Not the Trees," protesters demanded that the Department immediately withdraw this proposed amendment. A memorandum signed by over 250 individuals and groups was handed over to Mr. Sunder Naik, IFS, Addl. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, representing the Department, and Mr. S. Rajanna, also Addl. PCCF, who were gracious enough to step out of their offices and meet with the protesters. (A copy of the Memorandum can be downloaded here (PDF - 87 KB), and the proposed amendment here (JPEG - 69 KB). The memorandum can also be accessed at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/treeact)
Unbelievably the exemption list includes Aala (Ficus benghalensis, National Tree of India), Arali (Ficus religiosa, Sacred tree), Goni (Ficus mysorensis), Atthi (Ficus glomerata, Queen of Trees) and three types of Basari. All these Ficus species are home to millions of birds and small mammals which not only feast on the figs but also act as insect controlling agents. Easing the removal of Ficus trees, for instance, will devastate bird life and thus aid spread of pests. The exemption list also includes many major fruit trees such as Mango, Jack, Sapota, Lime, Tamarind, etc. and Neem (Azhadiracta indica), Honge (Pongamia pinnata), Dalbergia Sissoo amongst others. Shivni (Gmelina arborea), an excellent timber tree known as white teak, is also listed for exemption.
Mr. Naik speaking on behalf of the Department confirmed that the proposed amendment is still in the very early stages of consideration. He explained that this proposal was made to help farmers across Karnataka to fell trees for fuelwood and timber, as they were feeling harassed by the need for seeking prior permission from the Department. He did accept that the amendment could lead to widespread destruction of tree cover in Karnataka and implications need to be thoroughly studied before any action is taken on this proposal. He assured those gathered that the Department would not rush on this matter, and a final decision would only be taken after consulting local communities and environmental and social action groups from across Karnataka. To enable this, Mr. Naik confirmed that Forest Department would organise Public Hearings and Workshops.
Mr. Naik and Mr. Rajanna also shared concerns of those gathered that road widening in Bangalore and other urban areas is destroying green cover and making cities un-livable. Similarly, mining and other infrastructure projects were identified as key drivers for destruction of tree cover in Karnataka. The proposed amendment would only fuel reckless destruction of tree cover by such projects, they concurred. Meaningful implementation of the Tree Act was seen as a major step to stop this destruction. The officials expressed the need for dialogue with environmental and social action groups, and local governments and communities in ensuring that the Tree Act and other Biodiversity protection laws were sincerely employed to protect the natural wealth of Karnataka.
The protests and submission of memorandum was organised by Environment Support Group in collaboration with Hasiru Usiru in Bangalore. Bridge Network, Sankey Road Walkers Association, Dalit Bahujan Movement, Dr. Rajkumar Road Widening Affected Communities, Action Aid, and several others participated in the protest.
Similar protests were held in front of District Forest Offices in Mysore under the leadership of Mysore Grahakara Parishat, by Grameen Mahila Okkoota in Kolar, and in Belgaum, Hubli-Dharwar and Gulbarga.
JUST IN: Unconfirmed reports suggest the Mr. Anant Hegde Ashishar, Chairperson of the Karnataka Western Ghats Task Force, speaking for the Karnataka Government following the protests, confirmed that the proposal to amend the Tree Act has been dropped for now. If true, this decision is an emphatic victory for this state wide protest.