“The Greater Chennai Corporation officials promised not to cut any trees in Gandhi Nagar when the work on stormwater drains commenced last year. They also assured us that they will transplant trees if needed. But soon after, they felled a neem tree and many saplings that were planted by the residents,” says Meera Ravikumar, a resident of Gandhi Nagar.
This is one of many instances of tree felling for infrastructure and development projects across Chennai.
Areas like K K Nagar, Shenoy Nagar, T Nagar, Adyar and Anna Nagar have seen tree felling for stormwater drain projects, laying of roads and construction of Metro rail stations.
The absence of a comprehensive Tree Act has hampered the protection of trees in Chennai. Despite the constitution of a District Green Committee, gaps in the approval process and ineffective monitoring see Chennai continue to lose trees to felling by public agencies and private individuals.
Role of District Green Committee in Chennai
State and District Green Committees were constituted under the Green Tamil Nadu Mission in July 2021 and became operational in 2022.
The broad ambit of the work of the District Green Committee (DGC) is to protect existing trees and increase green cover and regulate the felling of trees. The DGC is to also carry out a census of trees in public and private spaces in the city. To facilitate its working, the DGC is to meet once a month.
The DGC comprises the District Collector of Chennai as the Chairman; the District Forest Officer as the Member-Secretary; members from land-owning government departments like Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, Public Works Department and Water Resources Department; and representatives from reputed NGOs chosen by the District Collector. Apart from that, officials from Revenue and Police Departments are also members of the Committee.
“The District Green Committee decides on proposals for tree cutting and tree transplantation. The Committee also regulates tree planting. Currently, tree planting takes place in an ad-hoc manner,” says TD Babu, trustee of NGO Nizhal and a Member of the District Green Committee in Chennai.
Working of the District Green Committee in Chennai
In order to protect the city’s trees, approval for the felling of trees by the DGC has been made a requirement. Any government department or private entity wanting to transplant or cut trees has to submit a proposal to the Green Committee.
The proposal is discussed during the monthly meetings of the DGC after which the Committee members carry out an inspection.
“If there is any difference of opinion between different committee members over the proposal, the Chairperson and Member Secretary will discuss the matter again and take a call,” says Babu.
Decisions on tree felling for public projects or long-term projects are taken within a month or two by the DGC. But if private individuals propose tree-cutting for emergency purposes such as a threat to buildings or life the DGC acts on such requests in a time-bound manner.
Individuals and private entities can share their concerns on the Whatsapp group of the DGC to request tree felling. An inspection is carried out by the members before approval is granted for tree felling.
Issues preventing effective functioning of District Green Committee in Chennai
Despite the DGC having been in existence for over a year, instances of tree felling are rampant even on its watch.
One of the reasons for this continued cutting of trees by both government agencies and private entities is the lack of awareness about the existence of the DGC.
Government departments know of the existence of the Committee. However, the awareness does not trickle down to the workers on the field who are in charge of carrying out the task of cutting trees.
“That’s why we have seen many trees being felled for highway expansion without permission from the Green Committee,” says Babu. “Lack of awareness on the ground leads to violations. Therefore, it is hard to maintain the green cover.”
Some government departments submit proposals for tree felling and go ahead with the task without awaiting approval from the DGC.
“They assume that they will get permission to cut trees by default. They come to the District Green Committee at the execution stage of the project and not in the initial stage. So we are forced to immediately reject or approve the proposals. Saving trees ends up being the executing department’s lowest priority,” says Babu.
The absence of monitoring systems to prevent private entities from tree felling is also an issue. At present, complaints and alarm raised by neighbours is the only means by which tree felling comes to light.
For individuals and organisations violating rules or bypassing the District Green Committee in cutting or transplanting trees, there are no standard penalties yet. The absence of punitive measures is also affect’s the DGC’s ability to protect the city’s trees.
“We are trying to evolve the penalty structure now,” says Babu. “We have to also understand what possible violations can occur in the future. Last year, in a first, a shop was fined Rs. 50,000 for cutting a tree in a public space.”
Where compensatory afforestation is mandated in cases where tree cutting is inevitable, not many stakeholders comply with these norms.
“If an entity is cutting a tree, then it should compensate for it by planting 10 saplings of the same species,” says Babu. “At least one tree must be compensated within the vicinity if one tree is cut. The rest of the 9 trees must be planted within a 5-km radius. Compensatory plantations can be done in government or public spaces. Even if private spaces allow compensatory plantation, that is also valid.”
Pointing out a recurrent issue with such an exercise, N Muthu Karthick, Team Leader at the NGO Care Earth Trust, says, “After compensatory plantation, many plants die within months due to improper maintenance.”
“We are not asked to do compensatory planting within 5 kilometres,” says an official of the Greater Chennai Corporation, on condition of anonymity. “Also, there is no instruction that we have to compensate with the same species. We are given a go-ahead if the species is native.”
Protecting Chennai’s trees
“We have suggested that the government departments come with the proposals in the initial stage of their [infrastructure] projects. When they submit their proposals to the government, they should share it with the District Green Committee too so that there is a scope for realignment,” says Babu.
Geo-tagging existing and newly planted trees can help with enumeration and protection.
“Many tree plantation drives are done across the city by different agencies and people. Not everyone is aware of geo-tagging the location of the trees on the Green Tamil Nadu Mission website. Unless there is ground-level monitoring, we won’t be able to find out if a tree is hurt or has been cut,” says Babu.
“They don’t have data on lost trees right now. But, geo-tagging might help in future,” says Muthu Karthik.
Another way the DGC can achieve its larger mission of greening the city and protecting trees is through compensatory tree planting and ensuring their survival.
“Now we will be auditing compensatory plants and transplanted trees in a month or two,” says Babu. “If they [the person or organisation who planted] fail to nurture the trees, then they will not be considered for approval of tree-cutting or transplantation henceforth. We are asking for a third-party audit as well.”
Involving the public is also important to ensure ground-level monitoring.
“There should be a visible notice board put up for the public near the place where the trees are going to be cut. Also, a phone number must be given on the noticeboard for residents to share suggestions and grievances,” says Babu. “We should devolve to have a tree committee at the ward level or area sabha level for better monitoring on the ground.”
“Streamlining mass plantation is also important. Similar to exclusive economic zones, we should have exclusive green zones,” says Babu.
Empowering the DGC with statutory provisions and punitive powers to act on illegal tree felling in the city is essential to protect trees. The approval process for government agencies felling trees for development projects must be made more stringent. Residents and civil society organisations must be trained to report violations.
A total of 955 trees were lost in Chennai due to infrastructure projects in 2022. With more projects in the pipeline, the need to streamline tree felling and tree transplantation processes is immediate.