The Bombay High Court, on April 16, 2018, sought to know from the civic bodies of Mumbai and Thane, if their municipal commissioners take expert opinion, before passing orders to fell trees. As per a recent amendment to the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, any proposal to cut trees below 25 in number, can be placed before the commissioner of the civic body concerned. Proposals to cut trees above 25 in number, have to be sent to the Tree Authority set up under the Act.
A division bench of justices AS Oka and Riyaz Chagla, posed the question to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC), while hearing a petition filed by activist Zoru Bhathena.
The activist challenged the validity of the amendment to the Act that conferred special power upon the municipal commissioner, to decide on proposals seeking permission to remove, fell or transplant up to 25 trees. “How will the commissioner exercise this power? Will he take expert opinion? The commissioner himself is not an expert on this issue. Then, how does he arrive at a decision as to which tree has to be removed, cut or transplanted?” Justice Oka asked.
The bench also raised queries on whether the commissioners would publish their decision, so that an aggrieved person could challenge it. “As per the amendment, if today, the commissioner passes an order to fell a tree, then, the next day the tree could be cut. There is no buffer time for a person aggrieved by the order, to challenge the order,” the court said. “Once a tree is cut, then, it is dead and gone. Hence, there has to be application of mind, before passing orders,” justice Oka said.
Are the civic bodies ready to make a statement that the commissioners’ decision would be published and a buffer time is given to enable people to challenge their order? he asked.
The bench posted the petition for further hearing on April 17, 2018, by when the civic bodies will have to reply to the court’s queries. The petition had complained that tree cutting proposals were being split, as the Tree Authority only looks into proposals that concern more than 25 trees. According to the petition, in January, 49 proposals for cutting 806 trees were submitted to the civic commissioner of Mumbai.