Maharashtra Cabinet nod to proposed amendments for protection of ‘heritage’ trees

An amendment to the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975 to bring in the concept of “heritage trees” was approved in a meeting of the Maharashtra Cabinet on Thursday, 10th June 2021. It is expected to come into force by way of ordinance.

The Cabinet also green-lighted the formation of the Maharashtra Tree Authority, which will take all decisions regarding protection of trees. It will have responsibility related to protection and conservation of trees, including “heritage trees”.

Last October, the implementation of the Act was transferred from the state urban development department to the environment and climate change department headed by Aaditya Thackeray.

In 2019, the Shiv Sena scion had backed the campaign against tree felling at Aarey in Mumbai to make way for a Metro car shed and gave it some political heft. The campaign, led by city environmentalists, succeeded in the cancellation of the project at Aarey.

The ongoing infrastructure development in Mumbai, including the Metro corridors, the coastal road and others have focussed attention on the large scale felling of trees required for these projects.

“The Act will focus on increasing tree cover in urban areas. Protecting existing trees along with preserving those having cultural importance is the need of the hour. It is critical that development is carried out in a sustainable manner ensuring conservation of nature,’’ said Principal Secretary (Environment) Manisha Mhaiskar.

“The amendment to the Act was proposed at the June 9 Cabinet meeting by the environment department. The proposal for amendment, along with permission for request to issue an ordinance, has been approved by the Cabinet,” stated a Cabinet note.

The amendment introduces the concept of heritage trees. According to the Cabinet note, a tree with an estimated age of 50 years or more shall be defined as a heritage tree. It may belong to specific species, which will be notified from time to time.

The environment department, in consultation with the forest department, will issue guidelines to determine the age of the tree, which would be important while deciding on compensatory afforestation.

The heritage trees will get special protection. If a 52-year-old tree is to be felled, then the party felling the tree will have to plant 52 trees in compensation, with each being at least 6-8 ft in height at the time of planting. Such plantation can be carried out either in the same plot or a common amenity plot.

The Cabinet note specifies that the party carrying out the plantation must ensure its survival for at least seven years, along with geo-tagging of the trees.

In case compensatory plantation is not possible, the tree feller has to pay compensation for economic valuation of the trees being felled.

The proposal for felling of more than 200 trees of over five years old or more shall be referred to the Maharashtra State Tree Authority. Any proposal for felling of trees less then five years old that shall be referred to local civic bodies.

Experts shall be a part of the local tree authority. Their knowledge and expertise will form the basis of decisions taken up by the authority. Chairman of the tree authority in case of a municipal council shall be the “chief officer of the council” on the lines of commissioners in corporations.

The local tree authority will ensure that census of trees is carried out every five years, along with counting of heritage trees. They also have to ensure plantation and survival of trees within the jurisdiction of the urban local authority.

The amendments specify that transplantations will be done based on expert guidance only. Alternate project designs in cities have to be considered to ensure minimum felling of trees.

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Finally, trees will get the protection they deserve. The Maharashtra Cabinet has approved amendments in the tree Act, which will lead to green, sustainable and carbon neutral cities,” said Mhaiskar.

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