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Explained: The Maharashtra govt’s proposed amendment for protection of ‘heritage trees’

Under the proposed amendment, a tree with an estimated age of 50 years or more shall be defined as a heritage tree.

Under the proposed amendment, 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. (Express Archives)

The Maharashtra government will make amendments to the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act of 1975, to introduce provisions for the protection of ‘heritage trees’. The Maharashtra Cabinet also green-lighted the formation of the Maharashtra Tree Authority in local civic bodies and councils which will take all decisions regarding the protection of trees.

What are heritage trees?

Under the proposed amendment, 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. Experts believe that in addition to the age, the state climate change department (which will be implementing the Tree Act), should also consider a tree’s rarity, its botanical, historical, religious, mythological and cultural importance in defining a heritage tree. The local Tree Authority will have to ensure tree census to be carried out every five years along with counting of heritage trees

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How is the age of the tree determined?

The most common method of determining the age of the tree is Dendrochronology – or tree-ring dating also called growth rings. Each year, roughly a tree adds to its girth, the new growth is called a tree ring. By counting the rings of a tree, the age can be determined. However, the process is invasive. To analyse the rings, core samples are extracted using a borer that’s screwed into the tree and pulled out, bringing with it a straw-size sample of wood. The hole in the tree is then sealed to prevent disease.

The environment department, in consultation with the forest department, will issue guidelines to determine the age of the tree.

Why was the concept of heritage tree introduced?

A heritage tree will get special protection. Crucially, the tree’s age will determine the number of trees to be planted as part of the compensatory plantation – that is anyone cutting a heritage tree will need to plant trees in the same numbers as the cut tree’s age.

According to the current Compensatory Plantation in the state, one sapling has to be planted for each tree that is cut. In Mumbai, as per the Tree Authority set up in 1976, to help in regulating the felling of trees and providing for the planting of an adequate number of new trees through the Garden Department, the compensation ratios are 1:3.

As per the amendment, the number of trees planted will be equal to the age of the heritage tree that is cut. For instance, 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 compensatory tree at least 6-8 ft in height at the time of planting. The organization planting the compensation trees will also have to ensure the survival of the plantation for seven years and geo-tag the trees. Such plantations can be carried out either in the same plot or a common amenity plot.

Through the introduction of a heritage tree, the state environment wants to discourage the cutting of heritage trees.

What is the economic value of the tree?

In case compensatory plantation is not possible, the tree feller has to pay compensation for the economic valuation of the trees being felled. While the state government has not defined the economic value of the tree, experts say that the amount of oxygen that a tree releases into the environment should determine its economic value.

The Supreme Court, in March this year, addressed the issue of the value of trees, beyond the wood/timber cost. In a matter about the felling of trees of ages up to 150 years for Road Over Bridges and road-widening projects in West Bengal, the SC ordered setting up a seven-member expert committee to “prescribe a mechanism for assessment of both intrinsic and instrumental value of the trees…”. To calculate “just and fair compensation…for felling of trees…it is…imperative to make a realistic assessment of the economic value of a tree, which may be permitted to fell, concerning its value to the environment and its longevity, about factors such as the production of oxygen and carbon sequestration, soil conservation, protection of flora/fauna, its role in habitat and ecosystem integrity and any other ecologically relevant factor, distinct from timber/wood,” the court said.

The amendment also has the fine for illegal felling of trees from a maximum of Rs 5,000 to Rs 1 lakh per tree.

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Tree Authority formation

The amendments also make room for the formation of the Maharashtra State Tree Authority and also tree authority in local civic bodies and councils. The Tree Authority is tasked with “increasing the tree cover in urban areas and protecting the existing ones.” 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.

A proposal to cut more than 200 trees of age 5 years or more, will be referred to the state tree authority. The local TA will have to ensure that the project is not sub-divided into smaller parts to keep the number of trees below the defined threshold. Ensure preparation of a tree plan and should aspire over the years to have 33 per cent green belt in their area.

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