The Supreme Court has fined officials of the Uttar Pradesh forest department and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for illegally felling thousands of trees and beginning construction work. Environmentalists here are happy that Rs.20,000 would be deducted from the salaries of those found guilty.
A three-member bench of the apex court Monday imposed the fine on the officials, who are yet to be identified, for felling trees along the nine-kilometre road from Kheria airport to the Taj Mahal and for initiating construction work on a facilities centre at the Taj.
"This is a unique development, one that will definitely have a salutary effect," the court's amicus curae Krishna Mahajan said over phone from New Delhi.
Environmentalists and conservationists in Agra welcomed the court's action but Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, said he was doubtful if the fine would actually be paid by "some unidentified officials of the two departments".
He said the apex court should have named the officials for callous neglect of their responsibilities and bypassing the court's directives.
"In all likelihood the concerned government departments would pay the penalties to save the individuals," Sharma said.
The fact that over 2,000 trees had been cut came to light when the Uttar Pradesh in a petition in 2007 asked the Supreme Court's permission to cut more than 2,000 tress for a road widening project near the Taj Mahal.
The court then asked the Krishna Mahajan committee, which monitors the environmental impact and pollution related issues in the eco-sensitive Taj Trapezium Zone, to file a report on the government's plea to cut 2,322 on either side of the road between the airport and the Taj.
The committee found that the area had only 100 trees standing.
Ravi Singh, another environmentalist, also was happy with the court's verdict and hoped more such initiatives, especially in the case of pollution of the Yamuna river, would follow.
Mahajan said that the court fined the two departments for failing to file responses to notices. The state forest department did not file the forest advisory committee report. In the case of the ASI, the monitoring committee had brought to the notice of the bench damage done on the eastern side of the outer boundary wall of the Taj - a hole had been drilled to construct a tourist facilities centre.
The bench had asked ASI for an explanation but the department had not provided satisfactory responses, which led to the court imposing a fine, Mahajan said.
The forest department reportedly kept insisting that the trees were still there and provided figures to support its contention. However eco-activists and the local media published photos of trees being chopped and wrongly numbered.
Mughal historian R. Nath said the ASI had no business changing the physical structure of monuments under Section 30 of the 1958 ASI Act.
"The ASI as a body is only supposed to maintain and conserve monuments and not to build or add new features," said Nath.