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In Dehradun, a Hope That No More Trees Will Be Cut To Widen Sahastradhara Road

In Dehradun, a Hope That No More Trees Will Be Cut To Widen Sahastradhara Road

A tree cut to make way for the Sahastradhara road-widening project, Dehradun, August 2022. Source: Special arrangement

  • In August, the Uttarakhand high court accepted a Public Works Department (PWD) proposal to transplant a thousand native trees instead of cutting them down.
  • They were at risk of being chopped after the state began implementing its proposal to widen a 14-km stretch of the Sahastradhara road to ease tourism traffic.
  • When PWD officers began to transplant the trees, activists informed the court that the trees ought to be moved in November and December or they were at risk of decay and death.
  • The PWD has since acknowledged the concerns and revised its plans, and plans to transplant the trees under the forest department’s supervision.

Chandigarh: In the first week of August, the Uttarakhand high court directed the state government to stop any further tree-felling to widen a 14-km stretch on the Sahastradhara road, even as people eagerly await the court’s final verdict on the matter.

The Sahastradhara road is an arterial road. The project is an implementation of the Uttarakhand state government’s proposal to broaden its 14-km Jogiwala-Pacific Golf Estate stretch from its current width of 7.5 m (but up to 10 m in some places) to 20 m, ostensibly to help traffic move faster between Dehradun and Mussoorie.

In May this year, the court stayed the tree-felling in response to a petition by activist Ashish Garg, who contended that removing so many trees would compromise the area’s pleasant weather and environs. In June, the court allowed the state to proceed with tree-felling but subject to some conditions. Garg and others then moved the Supreme Court, which refused to intervene but allowed the petition before the Uttarakhand high court to receive an urgent hearing.

The high court subsequently accepted the Public Works Department (PWD)’s modified proposal with subsequent directions now. This proposal is (quoted verbatim):

“That widening of the road shall continue but, out of 2,057 trees that is proposed to be felled, only 1006 eucalyptus trees are allowed to be felled by the authorities in the widening of road. As far as 79 trees are concerned, as per the counter affidavit they shall remain, as is where is basis, and they shall not be cut or harmed in any way. Regarding the rest 972, which include valuable fruit bearing trees belonging to the precious flora of Sub-Himalayan region, shall be transplanted to a suitable place.”

Note that the court rejected the petitioner’s request to not cut down eucalyptus trees. The petition included a copy of a National Green Tribunal order as part of which the Indian Paper Manufacturers’ Association had submitted a report claiming that eucalyptus trees captures more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that they can adapt to dry habitats to prevent water loss, and that they conserve their water outside of the rainy season.

But the high court didn’t agree to the report’s findings and maintained that eucalyptus trees have adverse effects on soil conservation and on the local water table.

The high court also directed the state government to plant appropriate trees on both sides of the proposed roads and maintain them for a period of five years, and submit a status report on this to the court once every six months.

However, the PWD and the forest department erred in handling the transplantation, including of the fruit-bearing varieties and other miscellaneous species such as peepal (Ficus religiosa) and ficus (Ficus benjamina).

“Neither the PWD nor the forest department felt the need to consult any expert body or scientists of the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun … before carrying out transplantation of trees” in a scientific way, Garg told The Wire Science. “They have already transplanted 326 trees during the monsoon period,” which, he added, is contrary to a post-2020 report of the institute that these species ought to be transplanted in November and December.

“November and December are not freezing even for a valley like Dehradun, and are considered ideal months for transplantation,” R.P. Singh, head of the silviculture department at the institute, told The Wire Science. “October and November are the months when the season changes from hot to winter,” and when the trees shed their leaves.

However, he also said that these trees haven’t been transplanted in the state’s hills before.

Kuruvila Thomas, director of the State Forest Institute, Kanpur, has led some tree transplantation exercises in Uttar Pradesh. He also spoke against moving the trees during the monsoons. “The soil becomes loose in the monsoons, which may not hold big or grown-up trees during prolonged or heavy rainfall. As a result, the trees may  get unbalanced or ultimately fall.”

He also said trees that lack cover soil during the monsoons are likely to decay.

After Garg said he brought the Forest Research Institute report to the high court’s notice, the forest department was spurred into action. Earlier this month, the divisional forest officer of the Mussoorie forest division shot off a letter to the PWD to transplant the trees as specified in the report.

Ashutosh Singh, divisional forest officer of the Mussoorie forest division, told The Wire Science that the forest department is monitoring the status of transplanted trees.

“There are doubts about the survival of trees like mango, but I am quite hopeful that varieties like the ficus, the peepal and the bottle brush may do well at their new location,” he said.

Officer Dhirender Singh said that the PWD plans to transplant the trees according to the institute’s guidelines. He also said that while the department is the executive agency, the forest department would remain vigilant during the exercise to ensure the survival of as many trees as possible.

As it happens, another activist, Nilesh Rath, also said the project flouted the National Urban Transport Policy, and that if it didn’t, most of the trees wouldn’t have to be moved.

Volunteers lash themselves to trees to prevent them from being cut for the Sahastradhara road-widening project. Photo: Special arrangement

According to the policy, the stretch of the Sahastradhara road in question can be widened for 3.5 m on each side. Rath said the additional widening will encroach on pedestrian pathways and parking areas, rendering the road inequitable in terms of who gets to use how much of it.

If the widening stayed within the stipulated area, he added, “80% of the trees can be saved.”

Garg also said that the Uttarakhand government’s proposal to widen the road was based on a project report that showed Sahastradhara to be “an area outside the city”. According to Garg, that used to be the case but today the road passes “through the heart of the city”, surrounded by “all sorts of structures, such as flats, buildings, offices and educational institutes”.

He also said that the state’s department of tourism hadn’t sought and received the Union environment ministry’s permission to execute its tourism development plan – given the government has sought to justify the expansion to ease tourist traffic. This permission is required because the ministry had notified Doon valley, where Dehradun is located, to be an ‘ecologically sensitive area’ in 1989.

But these questions haven’t slowed the project: Rath said that “though the high court is yet to give its final verdict, the builders at some of the patches where trees have been felled on Sahastradhara road have started publishing advertisements for sale of plots and buildings.”

Akanksha Upadhyaya, an interior designer, was among the first people to protest the tree-felling and her photos made the rounds on Twitter, encouraging others to join her.

“We projected it as Chipko Movement 2022 on social media and stuck to the trees” – alluding to the heroic actions of Gauri Devi and her peers in the 1970s. She said she hopes that no more trees will be cut down.

Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh-based independent journalist. She previously worked at The Tribune and The Times of India. She writes on forest, wildlife, environment, social and rural issues.

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