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Trees win reprieve in widen-road drive

The pause button has been pushed on the Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners’ (HRBC) permission to fell over 400 trees.

The agency and its appointed construction company, Tantia, got permission to cut the trees on the stretch between Ballygunge Phari and CIT Road, to widen the road. But, following a report in Metro on October 24 and outrage from the green lobby, the situation is to be re-evaluated by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) and others.

The decision was taken after an inquiry by HRBC, Tantia, the Pollution Control Board (PCB), the forest department and People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC). “For the moment, we will stop the exercise, pending talks with the CMC,” said S.N. De Sarkar of HRBC.

But environmentalists are wary. “There appears to be no coordination between the stakeholders. HRBC and its contractor are speaking different languages. Though a CMC official has, apparently, okayed the chop or transplant of certain trees, the mayor-in-council (parks and gardens) had no clue,” said Bonani Kakkar of PUBLIC.

The first two trees, both mahogany, which Tantia had earmarked for transplantation, were found to be in an area beyond that permitted by the PCB. Tantia project manager Aswini Kumar later admitted this error.

PCB chief engineer Biman Bose, claims the tree-cutting committee issues permits on the basis of the forest utilisation officer’s reports. “The PCB cannot carry out surveys itself, as it does not have the manpower,” he said.

This is the argument of the CMC, too. Javed Khan, member, mayor-in-council (slum welfare and environment) expressed his inability to stop the chopping. “The CMC environment department exists only in name and does not have the infrastructure to function,” said Ahmed.

The PCB, however, defends its decision. “If you want to widen roads, you have to cut trees,” said Bose.

HRBC and Tantia maintain it is the CMC that decided which trees to uproot and where they should be shifted. About this, the CMC could not be contacted. The construction firm has, however, already cut more than 80 trees on Gariahat Road.

The existing procedure of first attempting to translocate slow-growing and valuable trees, and where this is not possible to plant five times the number of trees felled within the CMC area, is an unpractical one, feel activists. “This is not the right time for transplantation and the authorities have not sought any expertise on the matter,” said Kakkar. The trees are, apparently, to be translocated near the Beleghata canal, an “inappropriate spot”, feels Kakkar.

“Who will ensure the right trees are planted and that they are maintained'” asked World Wide Fund for Nature state director Lt Col S.R. Banerjee. The HRBC was to plant compensatory fruit trees. “There are no proper guidelines for cutting trees. Eight years ago, Calcutta High Court had asked the state to formulate rules for felling. A draft was prepared but was never formalised,” said state forest department officials.

The felling could be disastrous for pollution levels. “Calcutta, with a high level of suspended particulate matter, needs avenue-style plantation on busy roads to combat vehicular fumes,” said professor Sudip Banerjee of Calcutta University’s environment department. “If trees are cut from Gariahat to Park Circus, known for high pollution, replanting should occur as early as possible,” said professor Siddhartha Dutta of Jadavpur University.

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