September 21, 2008

Tree Killers on the Loose

By Prithvijit Mitra

There was nothing about the dark, lean and wiry forest guard that set him apart from his colleagues in the forest department . He lived in obscurity till his genius was discovered by a few unscrupulous hoarding agencies. Aided by a couple of hatchet-men , the guard had perfected the art of killing trees. His methods varied depending on the height, age and location of the tree in question. Sometimes he would inject poisonous chemicals, like cyanide, in the dead of the night, or resort to merciless chopping if it failed to work.

He rarely failed to deliver and was popularly known as the "butcher" in hoarding circles. But he chanced his arm once too often and was arrested . Now his fate hangs in the balance, with the forest department instituting an inquiry. But he is just one of the contract killers who have made a small fortune in the last few years, thanks to some unscrupulous billboard agencies and realtors.

Tree chopping is now an organized activity in Kolkata with some hoarding agencies pumping in money to mow down trees that block their billboards. Over the years, the methods have changed from hacking to subtler techniques like injecting chemicals and indiscriminate 'pruning' (cutting off the branches so that the tree dies) that are often hard to catch.

"These men are nothing short of criminals. They have trained, practiced and fine-tuned the art of killing trees. In the absence of any vigil, they have a free run. It is shameful that even a forest guard, whose job is to save trees, has been felling them," said green activist Ravi Menon.

The tree mafia left its first bloody thumbprint in Tollygunge in early 2007. Branches of several trees - that 'obstructed' giant billboards opposite the Metro station - were found lying on the road. Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) sent a team for inspection after locals raised an alarm. A scrutiny revealed that the trees had been injected with poison to retard their growth because they had been jutting into the hoardings. When the trees fought off the poison, the tree mafia decided to take ruthless action.

Several trees were axed at Paroma Island near Salt Lake for which KMC pointed fingers at a hoarding agency. The latter was blacklisted and asked to pull down its hoarding from the site. But experts believe there are too many loopholes in the system and far too many adversaries to counter. A task that the civic authorities and the state forest department have failed to carry out.

"With newer methods being employed , it has become even more difficult for them. Pruning, for instance , is being used as an excuse to kill trees. KMC workers are regularly bribed to chop off branches in a way that leaves it tottering. It either falls on its own or his chopped down because it is deemed 'dangerous' ," said environmentalist Mukuta Mukhopadhyay.

She may not be off the mark. This year, more than 1,000 trees succumbed to nor'westers ' - which many found strange. "It can't be accidental . Most had become heavier on one side due to pruning which made them vulnerable to strong winds. At this rate, Kolkata will soon be converted into a concrete maze without any green cover," says environmentalist Subhas Datta.

Even newly planted saplings are not spared. Garbage was dumped on hundreds planted along the Bagjola canal in 2007. They died instantly. Saplings planted along VIP Roads are almost routinely uprooted.

"There is no denying the fact that we are trying to carry water in a leaking vessel. This is frustrating but we must carry on planting saplings. That is the only way to neutralize this felling spree," says Rakesh Sinha, principal conservator , social forestry.

But experts argue this is not enough. Felling has to be stopped at all costs, they say. "You cannot bank on plantation alone. Felling has to stop or else planting will have no impact," says green activist Ravi Menon.

Here is an indication of how state agencies work muddle cases of tree felling. Traces of cyanide were found in the chopped branches at Paroma Island but the forest department , strangely, did a turnaround after a week. In its report, it claimed that the trees had not been properly transplanted leading to their death. The civic authorities, though, refuse to buy the theory. "Unauthorized felling is a cause for concern. We are trying to coordinate with police and forest department . Hoarding agencies are under the scanner as well," said Faiyaz Ahmed Khan, MMiC (parks and squares).

Citizens must take

initiative: Mayor

Tree felling has become a menace in the city and we are trying our best to counter it. It is difficult for us to go around catching hackers. Kolkatans must come forward and help us prevent this scourge. But for that they need to be more aware about the harmful effects of denudation. Thankfully, people are now much more aware of the need to protect trees than they were, say, five or ten years ago.

We, on our part, have started an awareness campaign. Hackers are being penalized as well. Recently, we have lodged several FIRs against those involved with unauthorized felling, including two clubs in south Kolkata. This mindless felling has to stop. We shall go out of our way to ensure that.

- Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, mayor

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