Mumbai: The Bombay High Court, in an interim order today, restrained the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) from deciding on any pending applications for felling trees anywhere in the city until further orders. A bench of Justices A S Oka and P N Deshmukh however, permitted the BMC commissioner to make an exception and consider such applications only in cases of “extreme emergency” that involved threats of loss to human life or property.
The bench also directed the Maharashtra advocate general to file an affidavit detailing the procedure followed by the BMC commissioner while deciding upon proposals or applications to fell trees in the city. “The advocate general to file the affidavit within two weeks. And we make it clear that the BMC will not take any decisions on pending applications for felling, removing, or transplanting trees anywhere in the city until further orders, or, in cases of extreme emergency involving threats of loss of human life or property,” the bench said.
The bench was hearing a plea filed by activist Zoru Bhatena challenging the constitutional validity of a provision under the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act that confers special powers upon the municipal commissioners to decide upon applications that seek permission to cut less than 25 trees at a time. According to the petition, since January, the BMC commissioner had received proposals for cutting at least 806 trees across the city.
Bhatena had told the court on the last hearing earlier this month, that taking advantage of the above provision, several developers and work contractors often split their applications for felling trees to ensure that each plea sought permission only for 25 trees at a time, and thus, could be permitted by the BMC commissioner. As per the existing rules, proposals to cut, transplant, or remove more than 25 trees are sent to the corporation’s tree authority.
Bhatena’s plea had prompted the court to ask how the commissioner could be considered a competent authority to decide single-handedly upon tree cutting proposals. Meanwhile, while hearing a related petition filed by Thane resident Rohan Joshi, the court was informed that the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) had decided to dissolve its existing tree authority.
The commissioner of TMC informed the court through a letter that following the court’s intervention, the existing committee would be dissolved and a new, competent tree authority will be reconstituted. While the bench accepted the above submission, it said that the authorities in Thane too must refrain from allowing any proposals to cut trees till March 7, the next date of hearing.
“Also tell us what are the guidelines that will be followed while reconstituting the new authority,” the bench told TMC. On January 24, the bench had restrained TMC from allowing any proposal seeking permission to cut trees after the above petition informed the court that the councillors and others appointed to the Thane tree authority were not educated adequately on subjects related to trees.
The petition claimed that only three members of the committee were graduates in science, botany, or agriculture. The PIL had said that in order to achieve the objectives of the above Act, it was incumbent that the Thane tree authority be reconstituted.