Monday, January 26, 2009

WHO CAN ROOT OUT THIS MAFIA?

WHO CAN ROOT OUT THIS MAFIA?
Tree-cutting is lucrative business. A timber lobby claims a significant stake in every tree that is cut in and around the city
Mini Joseph Tejaswi | TNN

Bangalore: Is the Garden City in the grip of a timber mafia? Given that the city and its outskirts lost around 2 lakh trees (medium, large and very large) in the past 12 to 18 months to various development activities, it definitely seems so.
While a sizable number of the trees cut were hardwood like mahogany, jackfruit, mango, millentonia, rain tree, etc, which are very expensive, a majority were softwood like jacaranda, cassia spectabilis, gulmohar, casuarina and others.
The timber value of hardwood in
the market is very high, with the average price ranging between Rs 10 and Rs 40 lakh a piece. Softwood fetches between Rs 50,000 and Rs 2 lakh per tree.
And here’s the scam. Bangalore’s municipal corporation sells a large 20-30 year-old tree for a mere Rs 3,000, irrespective of size or quality of the tree! Not surprisingly, the city corporation has received a princely sum of Rs 10 lakh from timber sales in the past two years.
This bizarre scenario has spawned a timber lobby that claims a significant stake in every tree that is cut in and around the city. Worse, a similar timber mafia is active across the state as thousands of decades-old healthy trees are being felled mostly along state highways en route to say Tumkur, Hassan, Chikmagalur, Shimoga and Mangalore.
“Certain officials from the BBMP, PWD and other departments are hand in glove with timber contractors. When the BBMP gets paid Rs 3,000 or so even for a large tree, some government officials who function as mediators (agents) get a huge ‘cut’ in the range of Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 per tree,” alleges a contractor.
The defence for this situation comes from M R Suresh, tree officer of the BBMP, who says: “It’s tough to find tree cutters. Cutting and clearing involve a lot of labour. Also it’s mostly done at night to avoid traffic, so the labour becomes a bit cheaper.”
How does the timber mafia work? Well, it’s an interesting operation. A group of tree surveyors tour the city to identify ‘vulnerable’ trees, that are on the footpath or closer to the brim of the road. They also scout for trees that are of high timber value, like mahogany, silver oak, mango tree, jackfruit, etc. “After this recce, with the blessings of certain government officials, they start manipulating the position of the tree, bring it as close as possible to the main road by thinning down the footpath, so that the tree can ‘lawfully’ fall under the axe,” says a BBMP gardener, who once was part of a recce team.
Here’s a recent tree-cutting incident. There was a very large-spread ficus tree near the Queen’s statue in Cubbon Park. A small branch broke due to strong wind a month ago, but the tree was intact with other branches being sturdy.
A few days later, the tree was fully chopped off. “I even got into a scuffle with the cutter, who told me he had bought it for Rs 2,000 from BBMP and given another Rs 20,000 to certain officers there. He also told me that if suddenly the corporation decides not to cut it, yielding to public pressure, his money would be lost. By the way, as per horticulture department, the wood value of the tree was Rs 6 lakh,” says a protester.
The government’s enthusiasm to cut trees in the name of development and road widening shows no signs of abating. In over 60% of the cases the felling is not needbased, say observers.
STORY OF MAHOGANY ON ST MARK’S ROAD
On St Mark’s Road, right in front of Hard Rock Cafe, is a large-leaved mahogany tree. The height of its trunk is 7.5 metres, and the girth at breast height is 4.5 metres. It produces virgin oxygen worth Rs 1.5 lakh per annum and its timber value may be Rs 1 lakh. A few years ago, the corporation decided to cut this tree as part of its footpath width reduction exercise. When the woodcutter came in the night to cut the tree, a group of people including Prem Koshy of Koshy’s restaurant strongly protested. Later, Justice M F Saldanha passed a court order preventing the removal of the tree. So the tree is standing tall till date. “This probably is the only tree in the city that is saved by a court order. The timber value of a tree is hardly anything compared to the amount of oxygen it releases,” says Koshy. In this case, the woodcutter paid Rs 3,000 to the corporation as cost of the wood, and was planning to sell it for Rs 6 lakh to a timber merchant, who in turn estimated the value of the tree at Rs 20 lakh. HOW GOVT BODIES KILL TREES WHEN THEY DON’T CHOP THEM
While BSNL and BWSSB cut the roots of the trees, Bescom cuts the branches. PWD pours boiling tar mixture onto the base of the trunk and roots, partially burning it and giving it no space to breathe or grow roots. A BBMP rule insists that a couple of feet of space should be left around each tree while laying roads.
BACKGROUND In June 2008, the Karnataka High Court constituted a committee (on a PIL filed by a citizen group) to ensure that all transport (roads, flyovers, underpasses, Metro) work happening in the city will be cleared by it and a decision will be taken only in consultation with the public. Subsequently, the PIL moved the committee in July to ensure that all development projects comply with the court directive, failing which the project should be stayed. But as the committee never took up the PIL for hearing, the complainants were forced to go to the Lok Adalat, whose first hearing on November 24 was inconclusive. VOICES Tree-felling has been flourishing in the city. Irreparable damage has been done already. No green talk is transpiring into action on the ground. Green studies and seminars conducted by universities and other agencies are mere classroom subjects, with no implication/impact whatsoever on the ecology. — N Nandini | READER AND PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE, BANGALORE UNIVERSITY
In most cases, cutting of trees is not required and is illegal. It’s not done with genuine intention. The government is talking about widening 91 roads in the city. With just five roads, we’ve lost thousands of trees. — Leo Saldanha | COORDINATOR AT ENVIRONMENT SUPPORT GROUP

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