The Supreme Court on Thursday said sustainable development must remain at the heart of any development policy implemented by the state, as it is essential to strike balance between environmental protection and development.
A bench, headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian, set up a seven-member committee to develop a set of scientific and policy guidelines to govern decision-making with respect to cutting of trees for developmental projects. The committee is headed by wildlife expert and former chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, M.K. Ranjitsinh Jhala.
The top court said it is imperative to make a realistic assessment of the economic value of a tree, which may be permitted to be felled, with reference to its value to the environment and its longevity, with regard to factors such as the production of oxygen and carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and protection of flora/fauna. Also, its role, in habitat and ecosystem integrity and any other ecologically relevant factor, distinct from timber/wood, must be gauged.
The bench said this issue assumes significance from the perspective of climate change as a growing national and international concern. “The right to clean and healthy environment has been recognised as the fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution… Article 48-A imposes duty upon the state to endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country,” it noted.
The bench said India is also a party to international treaties, agreements and conferences and has committed itself to sustainable development and growth. “This legal framework indicates that sustainable development must remain at the heart of any development policy implemented by the state,” it observed.
The bench further added that conservation and development need not be viewed as binaries, but as complementary strategies that weave into one another. “In other words, conservation of nature must be viewed as part of the development and not as a factor stultifying development,” it noted.
The bench said under the Paris Agreement, India has committed itself to Nationally Determined Contributions in 2015, wherein one of the stated objectives is to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
The top court said that the committee’s guidelines may specify the species of trees in categories based upon their environmental values, considering the age and girth of the trees etc. “The guidelines shall prescribe a mechanism for assessment of both intrinsic and instrumental value of the trees, based not only on the value of timber, but also the ecosystem services rendered by the trees and its special relevance, if any, to the habitat of other living organisms, soil, flowing and underground water,” added the bench, asking the committee to submit its recommendations within four weeks of its first meeting.
The court’s decision came on a petition against the West Bengal government’s decision to fell hundreds of heritage trees, to construct Road Over Bridges (ROBs).