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The municipal authorities have built 30 parks in the last three years in Calcutta. Plans are also underway to add more parks in areas that fall between municipal wards 101 and 141. These are welcome developments on two counts. First, public parks occupy only five per cent of Calcutta’s total area. (Parks should cover 20 per cent of space for a city of this size.) Second, ‘public’ parks are not always inclusive spaces. Even the nominal entry fee charged by the popular parks keeps out underprivileged citizens. If each municipal ward were to have its own park, the less affluent would stand a better chance of gaining access to such civic amenities.

But before congratulating the municipal authorities for their democratic and environment-friendly vision, consider the following facts. The number of trees per kilometre on Calcutta’s roads is 43. Ideally, the figure should be 400. Neither the KMDA nor the Metro Railway — agencies responsible for rampant felling on such areas as the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, the stretch between Santoshpur Connector and Khudiram Station, James Long Sarani in Behala and even Camac Street — knows exactly how many trees have been felled. Official statistics state that in 2013, 1,785 trees were felled in Calcutta, a figure that environmentalists suspect is grossly inaccurate. Is the proposal to add parks then a ruse to deflect public attention from the pathetic institutional failure to safeguard Calcutta’s fragile environment?

Grey areas

The incongruence of development with ecological concerns can be attributed to an apathy that the executive shares with the judiciary. A legislation passed in 2006 states that if a person were to fell a tree after obtaining the necessary permission, two trees are to be planted as compensation. In the case of ‘developers’ (real estate agents and government agencies) the figure is supposed to be five. But the legal provisions are yet to be incorporated in the municipal Building Rules, allowing errant promoters to build residential complexes without the mandatory 20 per cent green cover.

The law has remained on paper not merely because of the government’s criminal collusion with the builders’ lobby. The courts’ reluctance to confront such violations in a far more combative manner is an aberration in an era of judicial activism. The high-court appointed committee’s useful suggestion of planting semi-grown trees as compensation remains susceptible to the inertia that afflicts public institutions and the people when it comes to protecting trees.

Some environmentalists have demanded the creation of yet another regulatory body to monitor the implementation of green laws. But these bodies — with their customary sprinkling of activists, public officials and planners — remain toothless because their decisions are not binding on the government. Stringent implementation of green laws and the empowerment of regulatory panels must be accompanied by a ‘tree census’. This will help planners by offering reliable data on the surviving tree population, the city’s vulnerable green spots as well as the kinds of trees that can check pollution.

Only sustained public pressure can compel the government to act. Sporadic awareness campaigns and the mere inclusion of Environmental Studies in the educational curriculum are not enough to create this kind of pressure. Newer, innovative ways must be explored to include environmental issues within the ambit of demands that people make of the government.

Incentives — monetary rewards for citizens for registering bona fide complaints against or for preventing felling — can work wonders in a society that worships wealth but not trees.