Saldanha’s move made police drop non-bailable charges

Had Bangalore Police charged arrested Sankey Road activists with a non-bailable offence on Friday, it could have triggered a human rights controversy.

Leo Saldanha of the city-based green NGO Environmental Support Group intervened in a move that partly led to dropping of charges against the protestors and activists arrested on July 1st during the Sankey Road episode. Protesters were objecting to cutting of 19 trees on Sankey Road for it’s proposed widening from Bhashyam Circle to Malleshwaram 18th Cross.

Victoria D’Souza, protester, was dragged along with the other women to the police van. Pic: Yogaraj Mudalgi.

Saldanha spoke to city police commissioner Jyothi Prakash Mirji and questioned the decision of Circle Inspector of Vyalikaval station to slap charges on those arrested under Indian penal Code, Section 353. Section 353 is used to charge people with assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty. When the Commissioner denied that such charges were being levelled, Saldanha went to Vyalikaval police station and the circle Inspector confirmed that they were indeed charge sheeting the protesters under Section 353.

Commissioner Mirji then spoke to the Inspector and asked him to drop the charges. Hasiru Usiru activist Vinay Sreenivasa, one of those arrested, told Citizen Matters that the peaceful protest did not warrant such grave charges. "Section 353, is non-bailable offence. The tree cutting was happening illegally and they had no right to arrest us as we only demanded a copy of the permission letter to be produced. We would have approached the State Human Rights’ commission if they had proceeded with the charges".

Police women try to evict activists. Pic: YM.

At the police station, the activists were treated better as they were provided with juice, bananas and idlis. "We were not mistreated in the police station and everyone was kind to us," said Lok Sattaa party member and activist Meenakshi Bharath after she was released.

The arrival of a stay order from the High Court of Karnataka in the evening put an end to the cutting and expedited the release of the protesters. Seventeen trees had been cut by the time the stay order was issued and only two were left.

Meenakshi Bharath and a few other residents of Malleshwaram had filed the petition. It was heard by a bench headed by Manjula Chellur and S N Sathyanarayana. In an unusual move, the judges visited the spot where the tree were being cut around 2 30 pm to get a clearer picture of the situation. The matter will be heard by the Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar on Monday.

Arrests came after major confrontation

Earlier yesterday, five men and seven women were arrested by Vyalikaval and High grounds Police when they were protesting the cutting of trees. Those arrested included Vinay Sreenivasa of Hasiru Usiru, noted film maker and environmentalist Suresh Heblikar, Dr Meenakshi Bharath of Malleshwaram Swabhimana Initiative and M B Krishnamurthy, a retired assistant engineer from BBMP. While four men were detained at Vyalikaval police station, seven women and Suresh Heblikar were detained at High Ground police station.

The protesters were arrested at around 330 pm. They lay down precariously under a large half cut branch of a rain tree and refused to budge. The protesters said they would move only after a copy of the permission letter issued to the contractor by the BBMP to cut the trees, be shown to them. No letter was shown as there was no BBMP official present at the venue. Police too failed to show any document that authorised them to provide protection to the cutters. Victoria D’Souza, one of the protesters said, "We are only asking for a letter. If we are shown the letter, we will move. We are here peacefully and the police do not have any right to take action against us."

Their pleas went unheard as the police resorted to physical action against them. The men were the first to be dragged in to the van. When one of the protesters refused to get up, he was surrounded by a group of policemen and beaten in full view of the media before he was put in the van.

It was a while before the women were arrested as there were not enough women constables to escort them. Once reinforcements arrived, it was not long before they too were dragged similarly in to another van. The protesters were dragged over jagged rocks and broken glass shards. Meenakshi Bharath, who arrived at the scene then, was also escorted into the van with Suresh Heblikar.

It was around 6pm when the protesters were let off. A police constable in mufti at High Grounds station said under condition of anonymity that the protesters would be released only after all the 19 trees were cut.

A loss

The Atthi tree on Sankey Road which residents of Malleshwaram had hugged dearly on Wednesday, was cut earlier in the morning at 11 30 am. A single chainsaw made quick work of the tree and took only a little more than half an hour to bring down the giant tree. There was no one to protect the tree as residents were unaware of the felling. Only a few media persons and passers-by were meek observers of the act. It was the fifth tree to be cut.

Second round of tree felling started at 11 30 with this Atthi tree. Pic: YM.

Earlier, during a midnight operation which began at 1 30 am on Friday morning after a secret auction, four trees were cut by contractors amid heavy police protection even as residents and activists protested the cutting.

Gopi C, 55, manager of the Ayyappa Temple in front of Sankey Tank looked on as the tree, he claimed to have nurtured since it was a sapling, was cut. "I came to Bangalore 15 years ago and the tree was then very small. I put a fence around it and watered it. The tree had grown tall and it is disheartening to see it cut down." Gopi feels that the road does not need to be widened. "I watch the traffic here every day. Except during the few peak hours, traffic is smooth here. It only needs effective traffic management," he says.

Residents then slowly gathered but their numbers never rose like it did on 29th June when more than hundred people had gathered to stop the auction. After the Atthi tree, the cutters prepared to saw a Ficus tree. A shed, an alleged encroachment, built under the tree had to be cleared of its contents before the felling began.

Heblikar tried to plead with the authorities to stop the process for a few minutes. Pic: YM.

Noted environmentalist and film maker Suresh Heblikar arrived at the spot and pleaded with the authorities to wait for a little while as he was in talks with senior officials in the BBMP and police department to discuss the issue. None of the officials including police Commissioner Jyothi Prakash Mirji, BBMP Commissioner H Siddaiah could be contacted.

"Sankey Tank has no springs and the tank does not have a substantial catchment area. It is dependent on underground water aquifers and rain water fro replenishment. Trees provide a major replenishment for underground aquifers and if they are cut, chances are the lake will dry up," he said. He added that, the micro climate of the surrounding area will be affected drastically if trees are cut indiscriminately. "Broad leaven tree such as Ficus absorb a considerable amount of carbon dioxide. They should not be cut at any cost," he said.

"Let us not talk about the cost of timber, the environmental impact from cutting the trees will be tremendous," said Heblikar.

Silent protest after the saga

Later on July 1st night, over a hundred residents gathered on Sankey Tank Road to hold a silent protest over the felling of trees. Terming the protest as a "funeral", residents held branches of the trees that were cut and formed a human chain. They also wrote messages on a large white board to express their concerns.

The residents will meet next at Sankey Tank at 7 30 am on Sunday July 2nd to discuss the next course of action.

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