The Supreme Court on Thursday said it is essential to develop a policy focusing on gradation of trees to ascertain a category of trees which can be cut down and the other category which requires protection throughout their lifespan.
A bench, headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian, said: “We want to lay some guidelines, a kind of cognitive pathway so that thinking takes place along those lines. The cost of the project to include the value of tree, or its contribution to the environment. Trees of a certain type and certain age shall never be cut down.”
The bench stressed that the issue of felling trees for developmental projects is a serious environmental issue.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), cited two verdicts of the top court emphasising appointment of an independent environmental regulator.
To this, the Chief Justice replied: “We want to ask an expert, which trees are most beneficial to the environment, the ones having ability to bind the soil.”
He added the court is keen to have more information from an expert on certain species of trees and the age it reaches. The bench observed that certain species of trees maybe cut down and cited the Subabul tree, which has cash value, but it is not good for the environment.
“We have to do gradation of trees. Then see, if they are liable to be cut down,” stressed the Chief Justice. The bench asked Centre’s counsel and other parties in the matter to suggest some expert for this task.
Citing the lacunae with the existing notification where no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required for road projects up to 100 Kms, the bench said: “Suppose somebody wants to make a new road, which is 50 feet wide, for this he needs clearance. Suppose you want to expand highway laterally (linear projects). If you extend laterally you can cause lot of environmental damage… Prima facie we need to strike down this notification.”
The top court made these observations during the hearing of APDR’s plea, which moved the top court challenging felling of 356 trees, which includes several heritage trees, for construction of 5 railway over bridges (RoBs) on NH 35 in West Bengal.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi submitted that the project under consideration is not about roads or highways, and instead is about RoBs.
The Chief Justice queried: “Our intention in this case to lay down guidelines to be followed in future… problem is with tree cutting”. The bench insisted that the government should explore other possibilities, waterways or railways, before coming to a conclusion to cut down trees.
As Singhvi reiterated that there is no road project, and it is only RoBs, the bench said: “We are concerned with fast-paced development all across the country. On this case we do not want an adversarial attitude.”
The top court has scheduled the matter for further hearing next week.