Gangtok: Does the felling of trees qualify a city as smart? There was a lot of uproar when the Smart City Project opted to cut around 121 trees in in Gangtok, in what was previously deemed as a Green Belt Zone, all to create more space for road extension. The same drew widespread criticism particularly from ‘old Gangtok’ residents who argued across social media how the Millenium Park area near the High Court of Sikkim, was previously a source of water supply before concrete structures started to make the most of Gangtok as a city.
The High Court of Sikkim has stayed further felling of trees in Gangtok for the smart city project being undertaken by the state government. The state government shall not fell any further trees, whatsoever, either in Zero Point junction, Development Area junction, or High Court junction or in the remaining six venues as listed, directed the division bench of Justice Meenakshi Madan Rai and Justice Bhaskar Raj Pradhan on June 29.
A Gangtok resident Kailash Pradhan, an architect by profession had submitted a letter petition to the High Court of Sikkim over felling of trees in the State capital for the smart city project. The court took up the letter petition in the form of a PIL on June 23 while directing the State respondents to submit their version of report, in support of the decision to felling of trees in the aforementioned areas.
During the hearing on Monday, State advocate general Vivek Kohli submitted to the High Court of Sikkim that the felling of trees was to develop Gangtok into a smart city in terms of the Smart City Mission introduced in 2015 by Urban Development ministry.
Advocate Jorgay Namka, the court-appointed Amicus Curiae in the PIL, submitted that ‘although the project incorporates sustainable environment but a large number of trees have been unfortunately felled on the premise that 10 saplings each would replace each one of the matured trees so felled.’ Hence, the concerned departments ought to be directed to furnish all relevant documents and files pertaining to the felling of the trees and the Smart City project, he submitted. He drew the attention of the court to the State respondent’s report wherein ‘the areas where the trees have been felled fall in the Green Belt Zone recognized as a protected zone under Forest’.
The division bench observed that the report filed by the State respondent is woefully deficient, bereft as it is of essential details and passed a series of orders pertaining to the same. It was directed to the State respondents that all relevant files and documents pertaining to the felling of the total of 121 trees at Zero Point junction, Development Area junction and High Court of Sikkim junction are to be furnished before the next date of hearing.
All files and documents pertaining to the proposed felling of trees in Hospital Dara junction, while further down hill in Ganju Lama Dwar junction, Amdo Golai junction, Sikkim Jewels junction and CRH (Manipal) junction are also to be furnished by State respondents.
“The State-Respondents shall also furnish all relevant documents pertaining to the Green Belt areas in and around Gangtok, rules regarding felling of trees and shall explain as to how trees were felled in the Green Belt areas,” ordered the High Court of Sikkim.
The Urban Development department and Forest department were directed to furnish all documents related to Smart City project which involves the plan of action for felling of trees and environmental impact assessment, if any.
Similarly, the Smart City Development Limited was directed to furnish all documents in their possession pertaining to the development of Gangtok as a Smart City which involves the plan of action for felling of trees and environmental impact assessment, if any. The PIL is listed for next hearing on July 17.
Sikkim has a Forest Cover of 3,342 square kilometers, which is 47.10% of State’s geographical area, as per India State of Forest Report of 2019. The same is seeing a deficit of -0.06%.
Kailash Pradhan who submitted the letter petition frequents the Millenium Park route everyday while going for his work. He was also previously a resident of Development Area where the tree was felled. Speaking with East Mojo days after his petition was approved and taken ahead, he stated, “I was shocked to see the trees being felled for road widening, I stayed silent for days until an article appeared in a local newspaper where the justification given by the former Smart City CEO Tarzan Subba mentioned that it was for widening of the City’s National Highway with mobility being a major hurdle in the State capital. Traffic hurdles is an everyday affair here in Gangtok and we know that it is not an easy solution. But if it is road widening, it has to start from Ranipool, some 11 kilometres downhill to Zero Point in the heart of Gangtok and not just at crucial junctures.The move does seem innappropriate as it will create bottlenecks in other junctions. I didn’t agree with the statement given by the Smart City Executive and felt that the government had lied. Furthermore, the planting 10 saplings for every tree being cut is an easy justification to sweep the matter under carpet, as trees take time to grow and what is lost once is lost forever”.
There was a proposal for 400 trees to be cut in these identified junctions, stretching less than a kilometer in area, which Pradhan termed as to be a massacre. “Gangtok is growing without any plan, where there is a road, there will be buildings, connectivity is not good and there is no proper planning. When we think about the environment, socio-economic equity, and when you have good governance in place, you can mitigate the negative impact of development. It’s a mugged up way of development and hide behind the rules and make that as a justification. It is vested interest and corruption, to manipulate the public perception. There is no considered way of development and government is not serious enough and things are not getting better,” stated Pradhan.
There are many organisations devoted to environment, but an individual acted upon the issue and took the matter with the judiciary. “You cannot lie in front of the court, the government will think twice before acting so rashly. They must acknowledge that trees are important, as their actions seem to go otherwise. The justification of planting 10 saplings against one tree is not right. Government acts on secrecy and we do not know what is happening as there is no public participation, and with the Smart City for Gangtok, it is like that,” Pradhan added.