Catch 22 in Shimla: To save urban forests or stay safe?

Every year, heavy monsoon rains cause the uprooting or instability of many large trees, posing a risk to life and property. Then again, the same pretext is used for rampant illegal tree felling in the town, that has led to loss of 50-55% of its green cover over the last 30 years.

For Vineet Gautam, the tall deodar tree in the backyard of his heritage home Mayvilla, had become a threat to his life and property. A massive landslide caused by incessant rains had washed away 80-100 metres of common road in the vicinity of his 1928-built home, dangerously tilting the massive tree. Having spent a night of anxiety and fear in his home, Vineet moved his family to a safer location the next morning, and had to spend three days to convince the municipal corporation to cut down and remove the tree.

Vineet Gautam was fortunate as the civic authorities responded to his emergency call. Both life and property were saved. But not all Shimla residents are that lucky. Every year, the monsoon rains, even when not as incessant and excessive as this year, trigger landslides leading to the uprooting of a number of the town’s large green deodar trees, mainly because of the haphazard and unplanned construction. Many of the multi-storey and high-rise buildings which have come-up illegally and in violation of the building norms has taken huge a toll on Shimla’s precious forest cover.

“Shimla has lost 50 to 55 percent of its forests in the past three decades,” said B S Malhans, a noted conservationist and INTACH member. “The illegal felling of trees by the MC and forest department, on the pretext that they are dangerous or dry, has happened at a much higher rate than new plantations or protection of existing wood stock.” The data with Shimla Municipal Corporation reveals that 197 trees are set to face the axe in the aftermath of this year’s rains. The state cabinet has granted approval to remove these trees which have been declared as dangerous, meaning means they are likely to fall any moment and are life threatening.

Danger ignored

In fact, the municipal corporation had come under flak over the delay in granting approvals to fell the trees. Mayor Kusum Sadret passed the buck to the state government for delay in approval to cut down these 197 trees. During 2017-2018, the Corporation had received 379 applications for cutting down of 768 trees on the basis of which 571 were either cut down or heavily pruned.

“This is a normal process as there is a laid down procedure in the Municipal Corporation Act to remove dry and generous trees,” said Pankaj Rai, Municipal Commissioner. “The permissions are granted only after a high level committee headed by the Mayor visits the spot, inspects the tree, its location and recommends to the government if it was satisfied about the tree being dangerous. Felling then becomes inevitable”.

Municipal workers busy removing the uprooted tree that fell on a car, after a landslide triggered by heavy rainfall in Shimla town. Pic: Pradeep Kumar

But the process can be time consuming, except for the rich and powerful. Balbir Tomar, a businessman living next to the Chief Minister’s residence, for instance, had to run from pillar to post and knock on every door that he knew for eight months to finally convince the Corporation about the threat posed by a tree to his modest home and family. “Had the tree not been cut before this monsoon, it would have surely come down on my house after the recent rains. One day, I was in tears at the Municipal Corporation office to plead my case,” recalled Tomar.

Genuine fears, like those of Balbir Tomar are rare. Mostly, those seeking felling of the trees are themselves responsible for putting a well-grown, stable and healthy tree at risk to get the space cleared for expanding an existing building or raising a new one.

“Some greedy citizens pour acid in the roots of the health tree to kill the trees and make them dry,” said former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest V P Mohan, who also heads a Supreme Court panel on forest felling cases. “These people also dig the roots of the standing deodars to make a case for removal /felling of dry and dangerous trees. The construction mess has led to ruthless felling of prime Shimla forest trees. At times, a tree comes crashing down naturally once the roots are exposed by digging into the soil. A few pour acid in the roots to kill the green tree, which soon dries-up. This is a big racket. Even the High Court has made certain observations on the issue but in vain”.

Big money in those trees

Then there is illegal felling of trees at odd hours such as midnight by real estate developers who want to clear areas to build commercial and residential flats. The Forest Department and municipal corporation turn a blind eye. The felling of standing trees and removal of fallen tree is done by the HP State Forest Corporation which later sells the finished wood and sleepers at its depots.

A single deodar gives a return of Rs 2 to 5 lakhs, depending upon the size and quality of the wood. Those engaged in illegal felling racket, and timber smuggling in Shimla and its peripheral forests, make huge gains, literally overnight.

Some years back when the Shimla Municipal Corporation was headed by CPM’s Mayor Sanjay Chauhan, several cases of illegal felling of trees came to the High Court’s notice, which ordered the state’s forest department to undertake drone-based mapping of the trees.

“The Court had also ordered that Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID) be implanted on the trees. This could have really helped to get a real-time assessment of the number of standing trees in Shimla, their survival and track cases of illegal felling,” recalled Deven Khanna, who was amicus curie in the case. Khanna added that the Supreme Court, which earlier had imposed a complete ban on felling of forest trees, has now relaxed the orders to permit felling of green forest trees in emergency cases, for example when heavy rains lead to the threat of a tree falling down on its own, endangering human safety.

Former mayor Sanjay Chauhan recalls he had rejected dozens of applications for felling of trees for construction, including an application filed by then Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s son Vikramaditya Singh (now an MLA) for a building next to Holly-Lodge, the private home of Virbhadra Singh at Jakhu hill, an area where tree felling is banned. Another request from the PWD for construction of a new High Court block was also rejected. “But, genuine cases for felling of dangerous trees were quickly cleared,” said Chauhan.

Chauhan that the government’s lackadaisical attitude in managing Shimla urban forest is evident from the fact that the post of Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) has been vacant for almost five months, which is one reason for the delays in granting sanctions to fell ‘dangerous trees,’ and in protection and preservation of the shrinking green cover.

Also, the state government is now moving to make tree felling easier. Forest minister Govind Thakur has spoken about easing the norms to allow felling of “dangerous and life-threatening” trees in Shimla. “We are going to simplify the procedure to cut down delays in granting approvals,” Thakur said.

The challenge

The gradual loss of Shimla’s forest cover has dangerous consequences for the lives of local residents. The town, where fans and air conditions were a rarity even in the summer months, has seen a sudden rise in the demand for cooling appliances. “There is demand for table fans and ACs even in Shimla’s core areas like Mall Road, Lower Bazar, US club, Banamore and Jakhu” said Bansi Dhar Pathak, a retired government officer who lives in Jakhu.

Jakhu, Shimla’s highest peak (8,000 feet), is best known for its ancient Lord Hanuman Temple a popular destination for tourists, pilgrims and locals. The Hill also has the highest concentration of Shimla’s monkey population. The Jakhu hill holds Shimla’s best forest cover and showcases the hill town’s fascinating green-belt, where any new construction has been banned since 2000.

Though the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned felling of trees in Shimla’s core areas, mainly the old town and heritage zone, and later banned construction in Shimla’s green belt, saving the rest of Shimla’s forests remains a big challenge.

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