Himachal High Court Shows the Way Forward for Protecting Trees

tree hugger

The strong action by the Himachal Pradesh High Court, particularly the Chief Justice L. Narayana Swamy and Justice Anoop Chitkara has raised expectations that at long last there will be better care of life-giving trees and the decisions taken by these judges will become a trend-setter for further judicial as well as government actions for giving much more attention to the protection of trees than has been the case so far.

In 2018 a case of illegal felling of trees by a stone crusher licensee was brought to the attention of the court. From subsequent investigation it appeared that Bhoop Ram had illegally cut 416 trees in the forest range Koti and the forest area Shalot ( Shimla). The court directed that this person should be  asked to deposit the full value of trees—Rs. 3.6 million or so– in the registry of the court. More than this, the judges asked the responsibility of concerned officials to be properly fixed and recovery to be made from them as well.

However subsequently the court learnt in the course of further hearings of the case that only some very low ranked officials had been implicated and all the others had been let off. Now the two judges took an even stronger stand. They observed on April 9 2021, “ What action has been taken by the respondent state is just an eye-wash as no liability has been fixed on the officers/officials who are higher in rank.” The court then asked the highest forest officials of the sate to be present in course on April 20. ( reported in the Tribune dated April 10 2021).

Subsequently ( as reported in the Times of India dated April 25) , the court ordered the recovery to be made from all senior and junior forest officials posted in the concerned forest area during the period 2015-18, although the officials have also been allowed to present their point of view on May 27. The amicus curiae pointed out the mandatory duty of the officials to carry out field inspections and detect illegal felling.

A few days later , on May 4, a division bench of the High Court comprising the same two judges heard a petition highlighting the felling of green trees within the jurisdiction of Shimla Municipal Corporation. The High Court stayed all permissions for felling and lopping trees , except permissions granted to the electricity department ( as reported in The Times of India dated May 5 2021). It is hoped that these orders as well as the investigations which are likely to follow from these will not only expose and stop many cases of avoidable cutting of trees under one pretext or the other, but in addition will serve as a warning to all concerned to give adequate importance to  protection of trees and avoid misusing various pretext to cut trees which can be saved.

Trees are important everywhere , but in the Himalayan region  their importance is even greater, and the serious concern and the matching strong decisions of these judges of the Himachal Pradesh high court should be widely welcomed.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.



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