Is the Smart City Project threatening the state’s forest coverage?
“Trees are our friends”, is a phrase one learns early on. School textbooks have explained how trees are a natural producer of the basic necessity that human beings would die without; oxygen. Everyone is taught at some point, whether at school or at home, that trees are indispensable – they provide shade on a sunny day, bear fruits and flowers (the birds are a friendly bonus and their songs come as icing to the cake), serve as a supplement to many human dealings; they can be worked with, in short spans of time and landscapes and let grow in long spans, as fruit farms, historical heritages, memoirs, things to remember, family lineages that are centuries old.
Acknowledged in various Governments’ Sustainable Development Strategies, trees play an especially important role in enhancing the quality of life in the urban environment, from aesthetics to medical support. Trees are an incumbent part of history and evolution of the planet, as is taught in schools and rightly so. As evolution has set its course till the present day, with increasing exploitation of nature as we know it, it is evident that a better and sustainable global policy for the protection of forest coverage is needed.
This policy as a whole comes in an array of different policies set by governments and different environmentalist organisations. An example of Bhutan can be taken where their national government has made explicit laws to protect its forest coverage. As mandated in its constitution, Bhutan preserves 60 per cent of its land under forest cover (at all times). Bhutan has succeeded in doing so. More than 51% of the country is protected—the largest percentage of any Asian country. Most of it is intact forestry interwoven with free-flowing rivers.
Sikkim has similar topographical features to Bhutan, with related activities, and eco-tourism policies. In recent days, areas around Gangtok and Namchi were seen to have patches of forest coverage removed in the proximity of roads and highways. These deforestation activities surfaced at different areas near Ghurpisey, Purano Namchi, Tharpu etc., at Namchi and near the cityscapes in Gangtok at areas like Hospital Dara, Sadar Police Station, 6th Mile area, and near the highway below All India Radio whose pictures found a substantial amount of attention on social media.
According to the Forest Department, this is due to the Smart City projects that require these trees to be removed as they cover areas that need to be turned into bigger roads as needed by Smart City planning. Many people have taken to social media questioning the process unbeknownst of the Smart City work at play.
“From our side, it is clear that we oppose it but plus we also pity the humans for harming themselves in the name of development,” says an executive member of VOICE NGO, a non-profit organization that works for environmental issues.
The member adds, “It is very simple, development should be there, but at what cost? Everything done should be done in a sustainable manner and on top of that what is the need for up-gradation of bazar and two smart cities in a hilly state like Sikkim with a population of just around 6 lakhs and on top of that most of the population live in rural areas.”
It has been more than two decades since demands for a more nature-friendly and sustainable approach to town and city architecture have been on the rise. People want an environmentally friendly world, but the same people make houses near old trees, cut their branches and trim their roots, compromising their integrity and thus become categorised as a threat to life and property.
It is a vicious cycle: humans tampering with nature and nature retaliating back in anguish. The super cyclone Amphan is a recent example. Roxy Mathew Koll, scientist, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and one of the lead authors in UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) oceans and cryosphere said in an interview with EdexLive, “These are record temperatures driven by climate change, we have never seen such high values until now.”
Smita Shilal, DFO (T), Government of Sikkim, on the matter of the clearing of the patches of the forest around Gangtok and Namchi said, “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 workers) 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.
Informing that there is a need for load extensions on areas without concrete structures and the need to increase the breadth of the roads under smart city plans, the DFO also mentioned that these projects are to be worked until 5th Mile in Gangtok but the approval has only been passed till Hospital Dara area at the moment.
Clarifying the queries and grievances of different samaritans and environmentalists on cutting down old trees she says, “It is nothing like that, old trees are not being cut because that has to planned and approved by the department, these patches being cleared are only as per the diverged under Smart City projects. They are all trees under posing threat to life and properties, and now there have been many near highways, which have to be removed. A person lost their life in Rhenock because of this. So to remove these threats we take approval from the department and do the needful.”
Sharing her views about the issue and in retrospect with Sikkim Usha Lachungpa, a wildlife conservationist said, “I’ve been in Sikkim now for 30-35 years and over these years, I have seen that when I came here Gangtok was a beautiful green city, now there are more building than trees. People find a beautiful spot where there are nice trees and all and build a house there, and once they build a house those same trees, which were so beautiful, become a danger to life and property. That tag that the tree gets makes it a responsibility for the forest department to remove that tree.”
“For the forest department, there is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation, where I’ve seen foresters try to protect an old tree and during a heavy rainfall the same tree fell and damaged property, and then the local people wanted to beat up the local forester,” she shares.
Stating that even in Sikkim, the majority of the public isn’t as responsible as they’d want them to be, building structures that dwindle the stability of the tree which then have to be removed. Lachungpa remarks about how important trees are to aerial routes and pit stops for birds and animals like Kala, Flying Squirrels, monkeys etc. and how now they are being forced to perch on electrical wires and posts, often getting electrocuted and tangled on the cables. “The removal of trees forces these birds and animals to get into contact with humans, coming to verandas, building ledges and windows, a human-made situation that the department has to deal with.”
“These animals coming to contact with the humans which don’t need to happen seeing reserved forest coverage around Gangtok, creates situations in which human diseases contaminate the animals and animal diseases contaminate human beings,” she opines, taking a jab at the roots of the current pandemic situation.
“These situations are created by ourselves by overburdening our landscapes and then calling trees our enemies.”
In many countries, it is illegal to cut trees and people and the governments plan their structures around it instead, taking this approach because of citizen activism and participation, since it is more cost-efficient to uproot than to plan a structure around trees. Talking about remediation and protection Lachungpa opines, “If there was a citizen group in Sikkim, like the one’s who are really interested to protect rather than the fanfare; groups that wouldn’t go down the road of initial activism, advertisement and then politicization, then it would be a good thing because all this can’t be blamed at the forest department because if they do not cut the trees near cities and roads they’ll get scolded and if they do they’ll get scolded all the same.
Lachungpa says that trees are our natural oxygen banks, it is the leaves of trees that soak pollution and give oxygen and the roots of the trees that catch the soil preventing landslides, and it is us humans who cut the branches, nail clothes lines and electric wires, and destabilise these trees.
“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 le it happen?
We are equally responsible for it, I feel that young people should take more positive attitude towards this and should be coming forward before these things happen instead of after all the harm is caused,” she concludes.