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HC gives local body final cut on tree axing

                                                                      The Times of India , Friday, October 11, 2013

After four years, the Bombay High Court has restored the power of the Pune Tree Authority (PTA), while empowering a five-member expert committee at the local level to take a final call on the removal of trees in the city.

Confirming the latest order passed on Sept 20, advocate Abhijit Kulkarni, who represented PMC in the HC, said, “A bench of Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justice Mahesh Sonak passed this order. The bench has restored the powers of the PTA to cut down trees within PMC’s jurisdiction.”

Following a PIL filed by activists Deepak Vahikar and Vaibhav Gandhi in 2009, in May that year, an HC bench comprising Justice Jaynarayan Patel and Mrudula Bhatkar had issued directives to the civic body, stating, “It is the primary duty of a municipal body to protect ecological balance by planting more trees.

Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) should have to take prior permission from the HC to cut trees. The court had also given the order to form a five-member expert committee for giving approval to cut down trees.

Through this expert committee, PMC should have to submit a proposal to the HC for a final decision every time they want to cut trees.” However, till recently, the HC took the final call in all tree cutting applications.

The PTA is made up of 30 members — 13 corporators, 15 experts, PMC’s tree officer and the Municipal Commissioner. Currently, the fivemember expert committee comprises S S Deokule and K N Dhumal of Pune University’s Botany Department and S P Salukhe, Botany professor of Modern College. The remaining two seats are vacant, after members resigned in 2010.

Gandhi, however, said, “If the court has given powers to PTA, they get a free hand to cut trees. Except the commissioner, all corporators in PTA have their own agenda.

Till date, there was pressure from the HC on PTA if they took a wrong decision. Now, there will be no checks and balances if such a committee is formed.” Ashok Ghorpade, superintendent of PMC’s Garden Department, said, “On September 20, the HC gave the order to take tree cutting decisions on a local level, through an expert committee and PTA.

However, we have not received the final copy of the order yet. Before this, the HC used to take at least a month to clear a tree cutting application. They then issued orders with certain terms and conditions. Right now, there are 25-30 pending cases.”

Prithviraj Sutar, PTA member and Shiv Sena corporator, said, “We are happy that the HC has reinstated our rights. We conduct meetings every month to take decisions related to the environment, including the cutting down of trees that create hurdles in the re-development of old structures, as well as in new building plans.”