A National Law for Urban Trees

Where legal rights for nature are being recognized?

1.        Legal rights of nature are being recognized in some jurisdictions.

2.        Rivers were recognized as legal entities by the courts in India. The Uttarakhand High Court recognized river Ganga as the first living entity of India.

3.        Supreme Court of India recognized in 2017 that even “animals have dignity, honor and their rights to privacy must be protected from unlawful assault”.

4.        Ecuador has become the first country in the world to constitutionally recognize the rights of nature.

Why is recognition of “rights of nature” relevant?

1.        It is relevant due to increasing threats to nature across the world.

2.        India has faced increasing assault on nature and trees in particular because of increasing physical infrastructure.

3.        Even legally protected areas (like national parks and sanctuaries) have been victims of this massive increase in infrastructure.

What was the recent controversy?

1. Controversy arose in New Delhi over felling of a large number of trees for the redevelopment of government colonies.

2. It highlighted the key concerns with trees preservation laws.

3.        Trees form an integral part of the city’s biodiversity and they were fell to make way for commercial and real estate development.

4.        Permissions were granted without any inquiry.

5.        Trees are very important in the urban landscape. They are considered as a means to control pollution.

6.        Citizen’s movements in the form of street protests and social media campaigns have expressed opposition to the felling of trees.

How is the legal framework lacking in the protection of trees?

1.        Unlike forests, wildlife, water, and air, there exists not even single central legislation for the protection of trees in areas that are not a part of the forestland.

2.        ‘Forests” is included in the Concurrent List. But there is no specific mention of “trees” as such in the constitution.

3.        Article 51 A(g) under the Fundamental Rights mentions the preservation of forests, lakes, rivers, and living beings but not “trees” in particular.

4.        Laws with respect to trees have been enacted only by various state legislatures. They broadly constitute a tree officer, tree authority, procedure for seeking permission of felling of trees, and the situations wherein such permissions have to be granted.

5.        Though the tree preservation acts confer absolute discretion to the tree officer, in reality, the tree officer merely acts on the dictates of the higher authority.

6.        In India, in all matters relating to the environment, permissions under environmental laws are sought after all other financial and other approvals (like a land acquisition) are completed. So, the approval under the environmental law becomes a mere formality. The case is the same for a tree officer too.

Which is the way to tackle this?

1.        The existing legal framework, as well as judicial responses to issues of tree felling, have largely failed to consider trees as a living and breathing entity.

2.        The tree officer neither has the technical capacity nor functional autonomy to deal when permissions for felling a large number of trees are being sought by other government departments and private companies.

3.        There must be comprehensive national legislation for the protection of trees.

4.        The ecological, aesthetic, life-sustaining and irreplaceable role of trees shall be recognized by such legislation.

5.        Focusing on urban trees and developing a comprehensive legal edifice to protect every tree will make cities a better place to live.