Over 12,000 trees already axed, thousands more marked as 2000 crore Kaithalighat-Shimla four lane approved
Himachal is cheered up after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs gave a nod to the Rs 1583.18 crore two-laning project (in formation of four) for 28 kilometers Kathalighat to Shimla section (Dhalli) of NH-22 (old numbering). But environmental activists are worried about adverse impacts of proposed felling of over 33,000 trees including seedlings and saplings. An area of 919 bigah would be acquired for the project. Considering unchecked rise in vehicular emissions and pollution from other harmful practices like biomass/garbage-burning in open in Shimla and Solan.
So far, National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has paid for only Solan to Parwanoo phase and this cost includes cost of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation and other pre-construction activities. NHAI has already paid Rs. 8, 71,92,790 to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) and Rs 9,31,40,305 to the Divisional Forest Officer, Solan.
An RTI activist, Himanshu Thakur, questioned Ministry of Environment, forest and Climate Change (MeEF) about how much CAMPA funds were received and how the funds would be utilized. He sought information regarding the status of CAMPA fund utilization in last 10 years in the state of Himachal Pradesh. But Rajagopal Prashant, CPIO and AIG (FC), did not provide required information saying “No information is available with this office and that the application was being transferred to the Government of Himachal Pradesh for provision of information if any.” But even State Forest Corporation seems to be evading the matter as they haven’t provided any information to the applicant.
Parwanoo- Shimla NH 22 widening and four-laning work began in 2015, and is under progress. NHAI has not initiated widening work at Dharampur, Jabali, and Kummarhatti. It suggests that either the required land isn’t acquired yet or the matter pertains to ligation. In either case, the project could witness long halt, and in that case, it would be nothing more than a gimmick.
So far, 11,984 trees are felled in the first phase from Parwanoo-Solan. Now, thousands of more trees are about to be axed in next phase from Kaithalighat to Shimla. The HP State Forest Corporation has already marked 21,000 trees, 10,221 saplings, 1,604 seedlings, and 5,206 poles to be cleared. The trees marked for felling include Chil, Deodar, Ban, Kharik, Shisham, Siris, Mango, Eucalyptus, Popular, Tun Akhrot, Robinnia and others.
Apparently, between trees and so called “development”, the later is winning. After all, we all want “development”. There is no doubt that the four-lane will minimize traffic congestion, reduce journey distance by 17 kilometers and save up to 45 minutes, and boost transportation of goods, thus, leading to overall development of the state.
Shimla is excited about the four-laning project, but only very few people wonder how it would affect the ecology. The National Green Tribunal was forced to ban commercial activity and entry of fossil fuel vehicles into Rohtang region after excessive air pollution was reported in surveys. NGT needs to take notice of this issue as well to ensure compliance to guidelines provided under Conservation Act.
Trees absorb carbon-dioxide and provide living creatures with breathable oxygen. So, the trees are like purifiers and it does matter when thousands of them are suddenly cleared. The emission levels remain the same, owing to rise in vehicular traffic and other human activities. But clearly we have lost huge chunk of forest and would continue losing more. The other critical issues related to it are destruction of wildlife habitat, especially avian habitat/nests. That’s why, under the provision in Conservation Act 1980, guidelines have mentioned placement of synthetic nests around the affected area due to land diversion, but lack of cognisance to this seems prevalent on Parwanoo – Solan highway.
Disappearance of trees is feared to lead to soil erosion and trigger landslides on newly constructed highway. Further, monkey-human conflict in Himachal is an apt example of what deforestation leads to. Not just Shimla or Solan, “development” is asking for tree-sacrifice in other districts too, like tree felling for widening of National Highway (NH)-88 between Hamirpur and Balugloa village, near Jawalamukhi, in Kangra district. About 2,023 trees were marked in January this year for the proposed widening here.
No clue of Tree Plantation/Afforestation
According to the permissions obtained by NHAI under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, the Forest Corporation must find a barren land double the cleared area and plant trees for afforestation and undertake maintenance and care for 5-10 years. In case of Shimla-Parwanoo four-laning, Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh was given compensation for tree-felling or fund for the afforestation work, which is about 18 crore in this case. The trees will take many decades to grow into the size of trees cleared, so plantation should have been under progress.
However, an RTI filed by an activist, Himanshu Thakur, revealed that the government has no clue about afforestation work. The RTI filed sought information regarding the CAMPA funds utilization, area selected for tree-plantation and progress made so far, but the MoEF clearly replied that there is no such information available with the office and transferred it to HP Govt. offices that haven’t acknowledged receiving any funds for afforestation.
That smells like another corruption scam in making in which money meant to plant thousands, may be lakhs, of trees would just go into the pockets of few individuals. No afforestation work is being carried out when it must have begun with approval of four-laning project itself. At least that’s what the response to the mentioned RTI application indicates.
NHAI paid the amount to CAMPA and HP Forest Corporation for compensatory afforestation. The point is, none of the departments have acknowledged receiving the money, and, on top of that, they have no information about when and how compensatory afforestation will be done. CAMPA says state will answer and the state is evading the matter by not answering it,
|Other information sought in RTI Act 2005|
|1||In the process of widening (4 lane) of National Highway-22 (old numbering) from Parwanoo till Solan in Himachal Pradesh, how many trees have been cut till now?|
|2||Whose permission was sought for the cutting of trees? Please provide the copy of permission letter|
|3||Has NHAI paid any amount of State Forest Corporation for the cutting of trees?|
|4||Who will be having the ownership of the wood of these trees?|
|5||Will NHAI be planting trees in order to compensate the loss of flora and fauna or the particular area?|
NHAI in reply said that it has already transferred funds to the CAMPA account as compensation/fund for afforestation. So, most information sought under RTI was provided except about afforestation work.
Strict guidelines were given under Forest Conservation Act 1980 to cut only as many trees as necessary. The guidelines also require planting new plants on either side of the four-lane as well as on the verge of the road. 11,504 trees had been felled by the end of March 2016 and the wood of these trees belongs to NHAI.
On ground level, the plantation work is not even in the priority list. As observed earlier, HP government is not at all serious regarding critical ecological issues. It has not moved a single muscle to monitor and keep a check on activities causing air, soil and water pollution. The condition is so poor that Shimla Municipal Corporation is directing its sanitation workers to burn garbage instead of collecting it because the capital city does not have an operational solid waste treatment plant. Furthermore, the Jaundice outbreak due to contamination of Ashwani Khud had claimed many lives and had landed about 15,000 people in hospital, which clearly exposed blatant corruption in SMC, PCB, and IPH.
Other than legally felled trees, illegal activities are also leading to deforestation. The tree-massacre in Tara Devi forest in Shimla, in which 500 trees were felled, is an apt example of it. Surprisingly, majority of illegal tree felling was reported from the home district of the forest minister Thakur Singh Bharmauri.
Deforestation is inevitable as we all seek “development”. All we can do is to delay it or work on afforestation. So, tree plantation and rehabilitation of wildlife must be top priority for any sensible and responsible government. Sadly, the awareness among people regarding these critical issues is negligible, and that further encourages government’s lethargic attitude.