The Supreme Court constituted on Thursday a committee of environment experts to suggest an alternative to felling of over 350 trees for construction of railway over bridges (ROB) and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.
"This case presents the usual dilemma between environmental degradation & development. Obviously each situation involves different consideration. Whatever be the method adopted for evaluation of the loss to environment, it is desirable that alternatives to proposed felling of heritage trees is considered by experts. Under the circumstances, appoint a committee of experts. The committee shall expeditiously take a decision on best course to be adopted and make a report to this court within 5 weeks", ordered the bench comprising CJI Bobde, Justices Surya Kant and B R Gavai.
The Court was considering a petition filed by a NGO 'Association for Protection of Democratic Rights' against the decision of Calcutta High Court which had upheld the West Bengal Government's decision to cut trees for the road project.
Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the West Bengal Government, alluded to the committee constituted at the High Court level and stated that the same committee could monitor the post afforestation aspects.
Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioner-NGO, opposed the submission of Dr. Singhvi. He said, "Anybody who proposes a project that involves gelling of trees has to take permission. These are heritage trees, replantation cannot replace. That enquiry is not done."
Rule 7(9) of the West Bengal Trees (Protection and Conservation in Non Forest Areas) Rules, 2007, requires a certification of clearance before the felling of trees. It was submitted by Bhushan that the State Government had failed to acquire such certificate before the commencement of the project.
When Chief Justice Bobde interjected to opine about the importance of human lives over those of trees, Bhushan submitted that global warming threatened the very existence of every species and had the ability to wipe out mankind within 50 years. While Bhushan said that he understood the need for development, he emphasised on vegetation being the solution to global warming and the need for other alternatives to felling of trees.
When asked about the alternatives, Bhushan suggested the building of under bridges instead of overbridges. This argument was approved by the Chief Justice who then directed Dr. Singhvi to either go underground or to change the alignment in a manner that would save the trees. However, this was opposed by Dr. Singhvi due to the delay in the project.
Advocate Bhushan further submitted that the Division Bench of the High Court of Calcutta had merely allowed for the felling of 356 trees. However, they now planned to cut 4000 heritage trees. In light of the same, Bhushan suggested that there should be an environment regulator for trees. This was again opposed by Dr. Singhvi as the project was already running late.
Post hearing the arguments of both the parties, the bench acknowledged the issue of sustainable development and directed that a report on alternatives be submitted within 5 weeks.