Mumbai: The Maharashtra legislative assembly on Friday passed a bill empowering local tree authorities to allow the felling of all types of trees without referring matters to the State Tree Authority.
The Bill, initiated by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde is said to be aimed at ensuing ease of doing business. However, the backdrop of bitter spat between the BJP and the Shiv Sena (UBT) over the felling of trees at Aarey and other places in Mumbai was exposed even as the members from these two parties debated the bill.
BJP accuses Shiv Sena
Shiv Sena (UBT), that had brought in the previous amendment to the act by forming State Tree Authority, questioned the rationale behind the new amendment, while BJP accused the Shiv Sena (UBT) for opposing development.
The bill amended the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975. It is yet to be passed by the legislative council.
Under the existing law, applications for cutting down more than two hundred trees which are five years or older and heritage trees are referred by the local (municipal) tree authority to the Maharashtra State Tree Authority. As per the amendment, local tree authorities can grant permission in all cases on their own.
While introducing the bill, the government said facilitating the ease of doing business is one of the best ways to promote development and attract investors. The Union government is constantly promoting the ease of doing business through decentralization of powers, by reducing the number of permits required and granting permissions within stipulated timeframes in various areas, the state government said.
During the debate on the bill, ruling BJP MLAs Ashish Shelar, Atul Bhatkhalkar and Ameet Satam slammed Shiv Sena (UBT) MLA and former environment minister Aaditya Thackeray for enacting the previous amendment to the Act and forming the State Tree Authority.
Shelar accused the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena of opposing almost every big project in Mumbai including the Metro, coastal road and Bullet train. It will not be an exaggeration to expect the party to ask people to travel in bullock carts in Mumbai, he quipped. He also accused Aaditya Thackeray of bringing in the earlier amendment (creating the State Tree Authority) to burnish his image as an environmental activist, and added that the intention was also to ensure that all files landed in the Mantralaya (the state government headquarters).
“It must be noted that whenever there is a need to fell 200 trees it is usually for some major road work or railway or some other developmental project. And hence, to make sure that they are able to oppose such projects, the then environment minister had made this change. Also, the Shiv Sena (UBT) had always opposed all the developmental works in the city and hence the purpose behind this change could have also been for a similar reason. But the Shinde-Fadnavis government made necessary amendments and handed over the rights back to the Tree Authority of the BMC. And I appreciate the Shinde-Fadnavis government for this decision,” said Shelar.
Thackeray, on the other hand, said the State Tree Authority’s mandate was to identify heritage trees and ascertain if there was a need to cut them, to what extent trees should be felled and how much compensation should be paid. The State Tree Authority has tree experts as its members, he pointed out.
“There can be ease of doing business only if there is ease of living,” Thackeray said.
Since January 2022, the State Tree Authority met five or six times, but “has the development stopped,” he asked. The State Tree Authority allowed the felling of 11,500 trees including 300 heritage trees and ordered transplantation of 5,400 trees, he added.
Projects such as Metro, Samruddhi Expressway, Mumbai Trans-harbour Link and coastal road were not stopped when the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government (of which he was a part) was in power. There should be a balance between development and environmental protection, Thackeray added.
Action against violators?
Another Shiv Sena (UBT) MLA Ravindra Walikar asked as to what action would be taken against those who fell more trees than they are permitted to do? He cited several instances in tree felling in Mumbai by builders and developers and asserted that there needs to be provision for felling more trees than is approved.
Congress MLAs Prithviraj Chavan, Varsha Gaikwad and Nana Patole stressed the need for sustainable development while protecting the environment.The NCP’s Jayant Patil criticised BJP legislators for making “political speeches” instead of speaking on environment protection. The government should announce local body elections first and then make political speeches, he added.
Replying to the debate, Environment Minister Deepak Kesarkar said the amendment restores the powers of local tree authorities. A tree authority does not only decide on tree felling but also on tree conservation, the minister said. Chavan, however, said local tree authorities do not have the expertise necessary to define a heritage tree and protect it. Kesarkar said all suggestions made during the debate will be considered.