A clear of conflict of interest has been at work in decisions taken to either grant or deny permission for felling of trees in Delhi, a right to information application has indicated.
In response to an RTI plea, the forest department has said the environment secretary decides on each application seeking felling of 20 or more number of trees. But, under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, this decision should be taken by deputy conservators of forests, also designated as tree officers.
The problem with this arrangement, activists and experts have pointed out, is that environment secretary is also the appellant authority. They say in case of an appeal against any decision to grant or deny permission for felling of trees, the environment secretary himself would be a judge in his own case.
Govind Singh, director of NGO Delhi Greens, said, “The tree officers are from Indian Forest Service and are well trained in protecting trees. The transfer of power to the environment secretary (an Indian Administrative Service officer) does create doubts regarding the government’s intent and also raises a valid question of conflict of interest.”
Interestingly, the decision to transfer the power was taken in February 2009 on the directions of the then environment secretary himself.
The RTI reply, furnished to tree enthusiast AN Prasad by the forest department, quotes a department order which tells the tree officers to process and submit applications seeking permission for felling of over 20 trees to the secretary (environment & forests) before granting or denying assent.
Prasad said, “This (the arrangement) is illegal. This perhaps explains blatant felling of thousands of trees across the Capital.”
Environment lawyer Rahul Choudhary said, “We can infer that government seems serious about trees and doesn’t want decisions left to tree officers. But the law doesn’t allow such transfer of power. Effectively, there’s no appellant authority now.”
Two of the three expert members of the Delhi Tree Authority termed the matter “grave” and said they would raise it with the chief minister. “The environment secretary is effectively secretary to the CM because she is also the environment minister. No wonder with assembly polls approaching, more and more infrastructure projects are being cleared with scant regard to greenery,” said a tree activist.