In the second week of January, amidst heavy security provided by the local police and the Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP), Forest Department officials — along with the Dakshina Kannada district authorities and personnel from Mangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited (MESCOM) — began uprooting and chopped nearly 202 trees at Alake village in Padil in Mangalore city in Karnataka.
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The 10.09-acre area formerly under Karnataka State Forest Industries Corporation (KSFIC) at Padil – is located on National Highway 75. In 2014, the state government transferred 5.89 acres to the Revenue Department.
The Alake area with survey No. 23/6A1B2, 23/4B, 23/12B, 23/6AB2, 23/6BP, and 23/3P at Padil, once lush with greenery, now sports a deserted look. The area measuring 5.89 acres is where the proposed Deputy Commissioner’s complex is supposed to come-up. Pegged at a cost of Rs 41 crore, the new complex adjacent to NH-66 is supposed to house over 31 government offices.
A lost world
With the uprooting of scores of trees, the entire fauna that resided in the area has also been displaced. Madhava Kumar, a local resident says that these days only uniformed personnel make rounds at the place.
“There were a good number of birds here, a welcome change from the concretised jungle that the city has become. It provided a lung-space not only for animals but also human citizens, but unfortunately now we must remember it as the glory of yesteryears,” Kumar says.
Another resident and petitioner against tree-felling, Shashidhar cites a survey conducted by a local college that found as many as 47 species of trees, 62 species of herbs and shrubs, 22 species of birds and eight species of animals including toddy cat, fox, monkeys, mongoose at Alake.
The razing of green-biodiversity at the outskirts of the city took place despite outrage, repeated pleas and court litigation filed by the citizens and green activists against the proposed project.
“It seemed that the government was hell bent on destroying the city’s ecology, they were not ready to listen to the genuine concerns of city residents who are already facing environmental issues such as uneven rain, air-pollution and water scarcity due to depleting green-cover,” said Advocate R Suma Nayak.
Scant regard for the environment
Adhering to the Karnataka High Court order and in compliance of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act (KPT) 1976, the tree officer did call for a public hearing since the number of trees per hectare was more than 50. But according to citizens, that was just an eyewash.
“The entire public hearing was a sham; despite thousands of city residents and NRI’s petitioning against the felling of trees and around hundred activists physically present at the venue opposing the same, the Forest department gave in to the interests of those (builders and contractors) who will make money of it,” says Suma. According to her, under Section 14 of the Prevention of Trees Act, they were not given appropriate time or a platform to make their representation of objection.
She also pointed out that the newspaper advertisement by the Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF) calling for public objection was given barely three-days before the hearing. “It was such a short time, substantial numbers of people were not able to express their grievance at such short notice or be present for the hearing due to prior commitments. Obviously, the hearing was held just to meet the legal mandate and it’s more than obvious that the forest officials wanted to avoid any public interference. Evidently, some of them were hands in glove with the construction lobby,” advocate Suma said.
Why a new complex at all?
Daniel Tauro, from the National Environment Care Federation (NECF), while terming the relocation of the DC’s officeto Padil as a wasteful expense, says locals never pointed out any issues or inconvenience with the location of the present DC’s office near Central Maidan.
“The DC office in its present location is accessible by all. Almost all the city, district and state buses provide pick-up and drop facility at this location so that people can easily avail access to public authorities. Thus, one does not see any reason why the district administration should relocate DC’s office to Padil, which is in the outskirts of the city,” says Tauro.
He also points out that the area in Padil is a deemed forest land and hence it attracts the provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, under which no one should not be allowed to cut and fell trees, whatever purpose it may be meant for.
The NECF filed a writ petition at the Karnataka High Court (KHC), while suggesting that the government must look for alternative land and not allow construction in the disputed area. However, while dismissing the Writ petition, the court observed that the government intended to help the public. “It is not that the property is allotted to a private organization to acquire unlawful gain. Construction is made on Karnataka Forest Industries Corporation land for the purpose of government offices to the help of public,” the judgment said.
A continuing struggle
Nevertheless, green activists led by Suma Nayak have challenged the government’s decision at the Chennai bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), pointing out their concerns to save biodiversity.
However, while allowing their petition, NGT said that the trees could be chopped only after permission is obtained from the competent authority. The court also added that the DC’s office would benefit the public and held that the government did not overreach its authority by reclaiming the forest land.
Meanwhile online petitioners continued to pour out their grievances to the authorities against felling of the trees. The petition was marked to DCF Karlikan V, among other authorities.
‘Depletion of green cover has already led to climatic changes like shortage of rain, drought, high temperatures and other environmental issues. The project should be shifted to a new place where no trees will have to be cut. As a responsible citizen, it is my constitutional duty to protect the forests and wildlife of my country. Hence, I have already mailed my objection to the forest department and urged the authorities not to grant permission to fell even a single tree for the project,’ a statement read.
Green pleas fall on deaf ears
On being asked to comment over relocation of the proposed DC’s office to another area as demanded by the activist, Karnataka Minister for Forest and Environment Ramanath Rai, who is also in-charge of the Dakshina Kannada district, flatly re-affirmed that there was no looking back. “The government will go ahead with the DC’s complex proposal,” he said.
While the district administration has told media that the existing DC’s office complex near RTO office would be converted into a heritage building, activists feel that the real-estate lobby in future might have other plans for the existing area.
“The present DC’s office in itself is located in a large piece of land in the heart of the city, so obviously the realtors’ lobby was interested in it for its marketable value. Besides, alternative land was also available in Bondel, Urwa stores, Kuloor. But since those lands are potential goldmines for developers, the authorities are forcing the DC office away from city limits,” Rajat S, an online petitioner says.
Suma further adds that given the thrust of government agencies on online services for the public, both the relocation of office and the huge investment that comes with it seems worthless.
DCF Karikalan meanwhile confirmed that the tree officer had received over 200 petitions, along with 1,000 emails over the cutting of 502 trees. “After examination of pleas and requests by all the parties, we have decided to allow the felling of 202 trees,” he said. According to the forest department, trees like the coconut do not require permission for felling as they do not come under the protected list.
Not willing to give up without another round of fight, Suma says that she is not waiting for reinstatement of the stay by the NGT. “Unfortunately there is a vacancy at the Green Bench as of now; as soon as the fresh appointment is made by the concerned authorities, our matter will continue to be heard,” she said.