Friends Indeed: Sikkim’s Trees and their Protection

Friends Indeed: Sikkim’s Trees and their Protection

“Trees are our friends” – a phrase that has been taught over and over again to children are in schools and some at home, but how far do they carry the message into adulthood?

Sikkim is known for its beautiful and diverse forest cover among many other environment-related things, and how Sikkimese people revere our trees. The Smart City Project, due to which more than 120 trees were felled in different areas of Gangtok, had been facing thorough criticism on the developmental plans, which came with a cost.

Netizens had been criticizing and complaining about the ongoing project on social media. The project that was supposed to broaden the roads to combat problems of traffic congestion in Gangtok make accessible pathways in urban locations as seen in areas of Namchi, etc., had the ultimate goal of development. The development comes with a cost. The felled trees that created a backlash was given a stay order by the High Court of India

The Smart City Project undertaken by the state government were directed with the staying of more felling of trees by the High Court. This was done in a view of seeing sustainable development as the driving factor to any developmental projects.

The order passed on June 29th by the High Court Bench of Justice Meenakshi Madan Rai and Justice Bhaskar Raj Pradhan, ordered the stay order to not fell any more trees “whatsoever” at Zero Point Junction, Development Area Junction, Smoke Test junction, Ganju Lama Junction, Amdo Golai Junction, Sikkim Jewels Junction, CRH Junction and Hospital Dara Junction. The mentioned junctions were already under the proposal of felling more trees to make way for the developmental project.

Photo Credit: Sikkim Express, Facebook

The HC bench went on the record to say the following, “sustainable development is the development that meets the need of the present generations without compromising on the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs. It also encompasses social and economic progress along with climate protection.”

The Justices who ordered the stay arrived as the friends that the trees were so desperately in need of. There was obviously backlash on the internet as the observed trend nowadays. No real action was taken by anybody, partially because it was the state government’s project, but mainly because people had no idea if not the intent, on how to start.

The environment, the various facets of it, cannot stand against humans by themselves so its protection falls on the shoulders of humans. The question “why?” has been answered more times than one has brought up a query. There have been many instances of people going out of their way to protect trees – the Chipko Movement which started in April 1973 at Uttarakhand’s Mandal village (then a part of Uttar Pradesh) in Alakananda valley is a prime example.

The stay order that came wasn’t a result of any such flamboyant action, which is compulsory in some cases. It came as the HC had taken the matter as public interest litigation based on a letter sent by the Gangtok resident, Kailash Pradhan. The concerned man was the one who made the whole deal happen by writing a letter to the High Court not knowing if that it would be taken seriously. To everyone’s surprise, the decision surely made a lot of people take a breather.

“I live at 6th Mile and drive-by Development Area and seeing the trees being felled like that made me concerned,” says Kailash in the interview with Sikkim Chronicle.

An architect by profession and a nature lover by heart, Kailash had been observing the acts of projects and also the air around it, with multiple questions being asked to the authorities and several articles presented by local media houses.

He says, “The justification given by the people involved in the project was that they were trying to solve the traffic problem of the city, but as a planner, I know that to solve this problem the roads have to be widened from Ranipool to Zero Point. Selective widening resulting in the formation of bottlenecks in the roads won’t solve the problem. I didn’t agree with that and felt as if the government was lying about it.”

He adds, “The government also said that 10 saplings would be planted instead of every fallen tree, it is an easy justification to give but the trees take 5-6 years to grow and one cannot buy time. Some of those trees were 60 years old some were 80 years old and the replacement is a flawed argument.”

“The tree that gives fresh air and improves the quality of life in urban areas, and to replace that with 10 trees in some other faraway location feels meaningless and I felt like this was also another lie by the government.”

Smita Shilal, DFO (T), Government of Sikkim, on the matter of the clearing of the patches of the forest around Gangtok and Namchi said in a previous interview with Sikkim Chronicle, “Before I came here as the DFO (T), the areas under question was diverted under the Smart City projects. The trees being cut and the forest coverage being removed have all been done after complying to compensatory afforestation terms in civil depositories.”

“As per compensatory afforestation, trees cut here would be compensated for in another location. They (Smart City Project) have deposited the payment, after which we made a management plan on the compensatory afforestation as avenue plantations, fertilisation of barren lands, and different other processes that become a part and parcel of the whole plan, which then was approved by the department. Complying with that, these projects have been issued under Smart City projects,” she adds.

As said by Kailash, the argument is flawed on the compensatory afforestation, but as shared by Usha Lachungpa, a retired forest officer and an environmental conservationist, it is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t the situation for the forest department.

“For the forest department, there is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t the situation, where I’ve seen foresters try to protect an old tree and during heavy rainfall, the same tree fell and damaged property, and then the local people wanted to beat up the local forester,” she shares an anecdote which pretty much sums up that it isn’t just the government and developmental plans to be blamed.

In 2018 the state government had issued a notification that allowed people to forge fraternal relationships with trees in a way to preserve them. The notification by the Forests, Environment and Wildlife Management Department titled Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) stated that any person was allowed to associate with trees standing on their private land or any public land by entering into a Mith/Mithini relationship.

The notification also included that the trees could be adopted as their child as well. This comes to show that the government hasn’t been blindsided to only development leaving the environment to wither away.

People find locations near trees and build houses there, compromise the integrity of the land and the trees and the trees then become a threat to property and life. People often tend to forget that trees also are living things, and the threat they are to our life reverses roles as we paint a clearer, objective picture. Humans are a threat to their lives as well.

“People want trees and people do not want trees, it has to be worked among citizens and departments. The questions come to the citizens: Where are we? What is our responsibility towards these trees? Why did we let it happen?

We are equally responsible for it, I feel that young people should take a more positive attitude towards this and should be coming forward before these things happen instead of after all the harm is caused,” Lachungpa had said in a previous interview.

The question isn’t just limited to the protection of trees but to the protection of the environment as a whole. How are we to protect them? How are we to keep the trees safer if we are part of their problem? How is development to be planned without being a threat to the environment?

The questions are complex but the answers to it might be simpler than one would imagine. As seen in Kailash’s case, just one letter can save a thousand trees. A small action that begat a huge result when it comes to the protection of the environment.

“It is high time that people shift from online activism to doing it for real, not much is needed, a small action can save a lot of lives. Just picking up some litter and putting them in the right dustbins, planting one sapling, helping a stray dog, swerving to save one animal crossing the street, all of these are small actions that require less, anyone can do it and collectively, it becomes ginormous,” says the State Advisor of VOICE, an environmentalist NGO from Sikkim.

He adds, “It is intended that people need to grow in their selves. Intent to help the environment, intent to go atleast one step out of their way to help nature as it helps us. That intent seems to be missing from people maybe because of all the things life throws at us. It is time that people recognize the good in them and kindle that intent, it is the only way. All people should do, as the health of the planet has been always been in our hands since we have gained sentience.”