The top court said that wherever there is a need to fell trees for a project, the moot question is how a just and fair compensation can be calculated by the authority or organisation concerned.
A bench of Chief Justice Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said: “We have no doubt that such compensation should be calculated and paid as a part of the project cost of the project which necessitates the felling of trees and such compensation must be utilized in an expert manner to create a better environment and, most importantly, increase afforestation.
“It is, therefore, imperative to make a realistic assessment of the economic value of a tree, which may be permitted to fell, with reference to its value to environment and its longevity, with regard to factors such as production of oxygen and carbon sequestration, soil conservation, protection of flora/fauna, its role in habitat and ecosystem integrity and any other ecologically relevant factor, distinct from timber/wood”.
It appointed seven-member panel headed by MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, wildlife expert and former Chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, Jigmet Takpa, Joint Secretary of MoEFCC as member secretary, Arun Singh Rawat, Director General of Indian Council for Forestry Research, Sandeep Tambe, Gopal Singh Rawat, former Dean and Director, Wildlife Institute of India, Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata and Pradeep Krishen.
The bench said that the committee shall “develop a set of scientific and policy guidelines that shall govern decision making with respect to cutting of trees for developmental projects”.
It said that these guidelines may specify the species of trees in categories based upon their environmental values considering the age and girth of the trees, etc and provide for special treatment for geographical area or eco-sensitive area, they may identify areas which need to be regulated and even identify a minimum threshold beyond which the guidelines will apply.
“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,” the bench said.
It said that the guidelines framed by the panel shall also mandate rules regarding alternate routes/sites for roads/projects, and possibilities for using alternate modes of transport like railways or water-ways.
“The guidelines shall also prescribe the mode of compensation financial and otherwise, the stage of depositing such compensation and the process that governs the computation and recovery. In this regard, the committee may consider the existing regulatory framework regarding calculation of Net Present Value (NPV) and may suggest necessary modification”, it said.
It said that the panel may consider the need for any permanent expert body and its proposed structural form and directed the Centre to ensure that all information/statistics necessary for the deliberations are made available.
It appointed advocate K Parameshwar as amicus curiae to assist the court on all the issues raised in the matter and said that he shall also assist the committee constituted, on the legal aspects involved in framing and institutionalising the guidelines it proposes.
The top court listed the matter after four weeks.
The bench said, “The right to clean and healthy environment has been recognized as the fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. 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.”
The top court was hearing a plea against felling of over 350 trees for construction of railway over bridges (ROB) and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.
The project in West Bengal involved construction of five railway bridges over a stretch of six kilometers and the number of trees to be felled is 306 and the report of the expert committee constituted earlier had submitted that about 50 trees have already been felled.
A committee of four experts, appointed earlier by the apex court, had valued at Rs 220 crore the 300 heritage trees which were to be chopped for the construction of five railways over bridges in West Bengal in terms of oxygen and other products they offer.
The Calcutta High Court on August 31, 2018, had paved the way for widening of the national highway and allowed felling of over 350 trees for widening of Jessore Road, which connects the city to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border, on the condition that five trees will be planted for each tree cut.
The NH-112 or Jessore Road is an important link between India and Bangladesh and the state government had undertaken a project to widen it. Hundreds of old trees line both sides of the road, some of which were decided to be felled for the purpose of widening of the road.