The Supreme Court on Wednesday took judicial notice of its expert committee report, which said the felling of 300 heritage trees to construct five Railway over-bridges in West Bengal will cost India a staggering ₹2,23,50,00,000 (₹2.2 billion).
The 10-digit figure was arrived at by the committee after calculating the products these trees would produce over 100 years of their natural lifetime. The committee included oxygen, micro-nutrients, compost and bio-fertiliser, besides the trees being valuable members of the natural environment.
The committee said an individual tree parts with, free of cost, “products” worth ₹74,500 a year.
Though the report was submitted a year ago, the figures of loss quoted in the report managed to alarm a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde on Wednesday.
Chief Justice Bobde suggested framing a new protocol by which road and highway projects ought to be cleared only after checking the feasibility of other modes of transport like waterways and Railways.
In case a road project is inevitable, the value of each tree should be “built into the cost of the project”, Chief Justice Bobde suggested. The court asked advocate Prashant Bhushan to draft the protocol in consultation with the government.
The report said the loss of 300 trees would be much more than the ₹500 crore sanctioned for the five rail over-bridges.
Besides, the committee noted, traffic congestion would see a further widening of the road in a decade or so. This would mean cutting another 4,056 trees. If so, the report said, the loss would added up to ₹30.21 billion over a period of 100 years. The committee said this would lead to an “environmental and economic catastrophe of horrifying proportions”.
The five proposed bridges are part of a mega project financed by the Centre to construct 208 rail over- and under-bridges across 19 States in the country.
The “Setu Bharatam Mega Project”, as it is called, has a sanctioned cost of ₹20,800 crore. It is meant to better traffic movement, reduce accidents and avert deaths at rail crossings.
The five rail over-bridges, across a 59-km stretch of the Jessore Road in West Bengal, is also part of India’s “Go East” vision to create a transport infrastructure through to Bangladesh and beyond Myanmar and China in the Far East to promote economic development of the country. A total of 22 rail over- and under-bridges have been sanctioned at a cost of ₹2,294 crore as part of the Setu Bharatam project and the “Go East” vision.
The expert committee report was by Dr. Soham Pandaya, Executive Director, Centre of Science for Villages Wardha; Bikash Kumar Maji, Assistant Chief Engineer, West Bengal; Niranjita Mitra, District Forest Officer North; and Nishant Mukerji, Director, Tiger Centre, Nagpur.
“These historical trees have irreplaceable value. Compensatory afforestation cannot replace trees of this value,” another committee member, Sunita Narain, from the Centre for Science and Environment, said in a separate report.
On Wednesday, the Bench also rubbished the government’s circular that Environment Impact Assessment need not be done for road projects spanning under 100 km.
“It is an unrealistic assumption that a 100 km road project will not destroy the environment. We will either ask someone to challenge your circular or take suo motu cognisance of it,” Chief Justice Bobde addressed the government side.