It’s been a long and difficult struggle to preserve Bengaluru’s trees

While amendments to the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act, 1976 has yielded results, is there still a long way to go to save Bengaluru's trees?

The power of consistent campaigning and pursuing a movement to its logical conclusion can be seen in Dattatraya T Devare’s and his team’s efforts. Since 2007, Devare, trustee of Bangalore Environment Trust (BET), has been working to preserve trees in the city, as part of which he filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking amendments to the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act, 1976. This eventually translated into path-breaking legal amendments to preserve Bengaluru’s trees.

“When I moved from Pune to Bangalore in 1986, I remember the city was very green,” says Devare, “But it began losing its trees due to development and I felt bad that I couldn’t do much about it. I got my first opportunity to work with BET in 2007,” says Devare.

Devare was part of the project of transplantation of trees from MG Road to Parade Grounds in 2007. “BET made several efforts to save trees and plant trees. We held a meet ‘Trees of Bangalore’ in 2007. Between 2007 and 2012, BET planted several trees. Many of our efforts were done keeping in mind the framework of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976 (popularly known as the Tree Act)”.

The journey of amendments to the Tree Act

There were, inevitably, a few disappointments that Devare and his team faced, but they were undeterred. “Between 2016 and 2017, the Metro Tree Committee was established, and I was part of it. However, the recommendations that the Committee gave were ignored.

“I also have a Law degree, so when I studied the Tree Act and compared it to other cities there were certain provisions that were better in other states. We suggested amendments to the Tree Act to the Karnataka Forest Department initially in 2012 and again in 2015. In April 2018, we filed a PIL requesting the implementation of the Tree Act in letter and in spirit,” says Devare. For one year, though, they got little relief from the High Court. But that changed from 2019 onwards. “We got very good orders from an environmentally-conscious bench,” says Devare.

The key outcomes

Devare lists the several impactful provisions that resulted from the High Court judgements. One such impact, says Devare, was that the Tree Census, which is mandatory in the Tree Act, but had not been implemented for 43 years, was finally started. Public Trust Doctrine was emphasised, requiring that the state and all public agencies should do everything to protect the environment, and that each and every tree is important. Tree felling in Balabrooie Guest House was stayed in October 2021.”

Among the most important outcomes was the formulation of the procedure for the felling of 50 trees and above for any public project. “Regarding the procedure for the felling of 50 trees and above, in terms of figures/numbers of trees saved, the achievement is not that great,” admits Devare, “But the establishment of the procedure is a huge step. It has provided a good framework, which recognises the importance of citizen participation.”

Devare stresses, though, that the success of the implementation of the procedure depends on the extent of citizen involvement in terms of raising cogent objections and through active engagement with the authorities.

Protests against tree felling in Bengaluru
Bengaluru has lost 78% of its vegetation in the last four decades, and has seen hundreds of protests against tree felling. Pic: Kiran Jonnalagadda

How does the tree felling permission procedure work?

  • If any agency wants to cut 50 or more trees, they have to file an application to the Tree Officer of the BBMP.
  • Once the Tree Officer gets the application, they have to issue a public notice, in newspapers and on the BBMP website, calling for citizen’s objections. Citizens get ten days to file their objections.
  • The Tree Officer then assesses the application and then refers it to the Tree Expert Committee(TEC). The Tree Expert Committee inspects each and every tree and based on defined technical criteria, decides if the tree should be retained/transplanted/felled. The Committee also identifies and selects sites for the translocation of the trees.
  • The formal order/permission is then issued by the Tree Officer either of BBMP/Forest Department. This has to be uploaded on the BBMP/Forest Department website.
  • “As petitioners, we have 15 days to raise objections based on inputs by citizens,” adds Devare. “The High Court considers the permission, proceedings of TEC, our objections and approves the permission/order for implementation. Without the High Court approval, the permission cannot be implemented.
  • The concerned agency also has to give details on compensatory plantation. Details include: Where will it be done? What tree species will be planted? The soil quality test etc.
  • The tree transplantation has to be overseen by the Tree Officer and then quarterly reporting on the survival of the trees needs to be done by the concerned agency and the Tree Officer.
  • Quarterly Reporting on compensatory plantation is also mandatory.
  • The procedure ensures transparency, opportunity for citizen participation, such as a formalised role of experts, rigorous scrutiny of tree felling applications, mandatory transplantation/ compensatory plantation and accountability for survival.

Current challenges

There are several roadblocks in preserving the city’s trees. “Application of mind of the Tree Expert Committee (TEC) is not sufficient to decide whether tree felling should be permitted in a particular case. Recently, in one of the permissions letters issued by Tree Officer, we found a number of trees which are already damaged. It is the duty of the Tree Officer to prevent the damage of trees,” says Devare.

He adds that the TEC must also go deeper into the justifications of projects that require tree felling. “TEC should ask if road widening is at all required. For example, on one particular road from Mekhri Circle to IISC, where white-topping was to be done, there are a few trees which are not on the footpath and take up a little bit of roadspace. They have existed like that for many years. White-topping means only improving the surface of the roads, there is no need to touch those trees. White-topping doesn’t need widening of the road.”

Read more: Is tree transplantation really worth it?

After the High Court compelled the authorities to carry out the Tree Census, the work was entrusted to two agencies. “However, both didn’t work out, ‘ says Devare, “They are now in the process of floating tenders again. We had already informed the High Court that the Tree Census is getting delayed. The application was resubmitted a few days ago.”

What are the requirements for transplantation of trees?

There are detailed guidelines documented by GKVK Agricultural University to be observed before, during, and after transplantation of trees. The contractors engaged for transplantation have to strictly adhere to them and a part of their charges are payable only on survival over a period of three years.

What can citizens do to protect trees?

Citizens should file sound and cogent objections when it comes to the procedure regarding felling of 50 or more trees.

For tree plantation, citizens should plant trees in their own neighbourhoods so that they can take care of them. Plantation is officially done by the BBMP and the citizens can get involved in that. They can also be part of various reputed groups in the city involved in regular plantation. One can even get saplings free of cost from BBMP. Roadside trees have to be planted by the BBMP. They should be planted with a proper iron tree guard. Unless there is a tree guard, the tree is unlikely to survive.

The Tree Act has a provision for adoption of trees, but Devare says an operational procedure needs to be defined and communicated to the citizens, and that BET is working on that.

“When a citizen notices a tree/trees being felled, he needs to check if a permission has been issued. If not, he has to inform the Tree Officer. Currently, only the Tree Officer can file a FIR. We are exploring if the citizens can be empowered to directly file a police complaint/FIR,” says Devare.

QR code for trees

The BBMP has conducted a pilot project in Malleshwaram of fixing a QR code on every tree that would give information on its species, age, benefits etc. If the project is successful, the QR code system will be used for all the trees in the city.

A different viewpoint

Leo Saldanha, co-ordinator of Environment Support Group (ESG), says: “The Forest Department has lost interest in preserving trees. They are unable to work autonomously.”

He says: “ESG worked with the Amicus curiae appointed in WP 7288/2011 by the Principal Bench of the Karnataka High Court, and the Chief Conservator of Forests designated to BBMP, and along with other civil society organisations, helped develop an unprecedented strategy for re-greening Bangalore through direct public participation in collaboration with Ward Committees and civic and forest agencies. This strategy was comprehensively accepted by the Karnataka High Court in the final order issued on August 7 2014 in WP 7288/2011. However, till date the scheme is in cold storage and there has been no compliance with it”. He adds that to protect trees more work has to be done on the ground and for that one must move outside their comfort zones.

Read more: Saving Bangalore’s trees

Leo also disagrees with the limit of 50 trees and above. “There should be no limit. 50 trees is not more important than one tree.”

Devare, however, says, ‘With respect to felling of less than 50 trees, what has been observed is that some agencies split a big project into small slices to avoid the public notice. To stop this, the High Court has given directions to the Tree Officer that he should return the application if the project looks to have been split.”

Sarina Sikkaligar, BBMP’s deputy conservator of forests (DCF), says, “When any new project comes to us, we issue a public notice in the newspapers and on the BBMP website that these many trees are being felled. And yes, we do get objections from the public. We also do compensatory tree planting.”

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  1. R Raghavendran says:

    In once green areas like Jayanagar, once a tree falls, due to root space reduction for ever increasing road and concrete buildings, neither BBMP nor public care to replace the trees. I have tried to contact BBMP for preventing trees cutting but was made to run pillar to post. Public have even complained that trees mess up their houses due to leaves shedding!!

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