It is impossible to make a bench without cutting a tree. This truism could make sad sense to the green bench of the Calcutta high court. The West Bengal Trees (Protection and Conservation in Non-Forest Areas) Act, 2003, has been drafted, and is likely to be tabled during the assembly session beginning today. This draft will alarm and annoy anybody who values trees. This is not merely a question of aesthetics or sentiments, of finding trees beautiful and feeling for the unnatural death of things that live and grow. The draft also invokes protection and conservation, only to show a shallow and dangerous understanding of both concepts. Nothing less than the sustenance of Bengal’s environment, and hence of its inhabitants, is at stake here. There are two senseless elements in the draft. A tree qualifies to be a tree, and therefore deserves to be protected as one, only if it is more than four metres tall. This immediately leaves young trees vulnerable to felling, together with several other shorter species. Second, the draft allows the felling of trees causing “obstruction or nuisance” or “danger to person or property”. Such categories allow for a degree of flexible interpretation that would be impossible to monitor, and would therefore foster rampant abuse. Third, a tree may be cut down if the authorities do not respond within a month of being petitioned. Here again, the natural pace of the Indian bureaucracy would play directly into the hands of criminal cutters.
Green activists and other sensible people are right to feel outraged by this draft. It is geared to promote a culture of unthinking and unscrupulous urban and rural development founded not only on total indifference to environmental principles but also on greed and corruption. The spate of fly-overs in Calcutta has caused enough damage to the city’s greenery. Valuable old mahogany and rain trees were indiscriminately felled and sold when the Jessore Road, connecting Calcutta and Dhaka, was being extended. Shopping malls, new housing and better roads are all an inevitable part of development. But the state and its laws must not end up endorsing the ethics, or the lack of them, of unprincipled promoters and ignorant urban planners.