With Mumbai’s tree cover diminishing at a rapid pace, the need for ecological experts in the Tree Authority committee is more pressing than ever.
On Friday, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) invited nominations of independent tree experts to be on the Tree Authority (TA). The High Court mandated move was a result of a PIL filed by Zoru Bhathena, an activist, that raised fingers on how all the 13 members of TA were municipal corporators and not a single tree expert. “TA by law has to function with Municipal corporators because they have local knowledge and experts who have environmental and tree knowledge. But the TA was only functioning with corporators and no expert, so we pointed it out the court,” shares Zoru.
In October 2018, the court restricted TA from taking any decisions or actions regarding felling of the trees, until they appointed independent experts to be on the civic body. Apparently, this restriction was the thin string witholding the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRC) proposed construction of a car shed at Aarey Colony. Now that the BMC has openly invited nominations with set criteria and small deadline, whether the newly appointed members will be able to prevent the further felling of trees, is still contentious.
According to Stalin Dayanand, a conservationist from NGO Vanashakti, the TA members in the past have taken decisions regarding the felling of the trees without proper inspections or knowledge. “The earlier TA has been trading proposals left, right and centre without even visiting the site and understanding the importance of the trees there. Where are you allowing and on what permission? Besides what are the kinds of trees you are cutting? What is its ecological value and whether what they are planting today in place of the ornamental plants going to suffice? What is the compensatory aforestation? What is the money committed for that so-called aforestation? All these things have to be taken into the account, but earlier what used to happen was these corporators used to say ‘go and cut’ and ‘go and plant’. There was absolutely no logic for that. They have no clue about ecology and environment,” he says. He further adds, “It is horrifying that all the corporators on the TA have no clue, no idea, no passion or compassion for the trees.”
According to the criteria specified by the BMC, the nominees will be eligible only if they hold a graduate degree in botany, agriculture, environmental science, horticulture or arboriculture and have ten years of experience in tree plantation, preservation, and protection. Hence, the appointment of expert new members should be a sigh of relief. But according to Nilesh Bakshi, the green activist and former member of TA (2007-2012), the second part of the eligibility criteria itself poses retardation in the appointment of adept members.
As specified, if an applicant does not meet the qualifications, then even if he/she is a member of an NGO listed in the state government’s social forestry department, they’d be eligible. However, no such NGO is enlisted. “According to my knowledge, not even a single NGO is registered with the Social Forestry, so that qualification is struck out. Now, how many of us will be agriculturists or graduates of botany?” he says. He illuminates that earlier if one were a part of an NGO, and had worked for the green cover, they were rightly eligible to be a member of the TA. Hence, professionally a doctor, he was able to serve as a member, however, now he is deemed ineligible.
He further adds that the proposed ratio of the tree experts to the corporator members would be one third, hence making it difficult to count the interests of the experts. “These people will always steamroll the opinions of the nominated members, and unless the nominated members are strong and vocal, nothing will get done about their idea. Moreover, whatever they say and do in the meetings may not be the same thing which may appear in the minutes,” he specifies.
While Zoru is hopeful for the new move to inspire TA to take corrective measures to prevent the cutting of trees, Stalin and Nilesh propose some additions and changes to ensure the proper working of the TA. Stalin demands that the academicians and professors who will be appointed as the new members should be given proper compensation and travel remuneration. Whereas, according to Nilesh, there is a dire need to appoint an arborist as a co-chairman along with the Municipal Commissioner as the chairman of the TA. “My only suggestion is that the co-chairman should be an arborist – tree expert. The co-chairman should be the tree expert so that the decision taken by them are in the interest of the trees and not against the trees,” he concludes.