Information Commissioner Directs Nagpur Municipal Corporation To Upload Entire Data of Tree Felling in the City
While citizens are protesting and campaigning against the indiscriminate tree felling in various cities, under the excuse of road-widening or other concretised development, a Nagpur citizen’s second appeal under the RTI Act has had the information commissioner come down hard on the Nagpur municipal corporation (NMC) demanding complete transparency by it.
 
Taking serious note of the opacity in the matter of tree felling, planting and compensatory plantation, Rahul Pande, Nagpur’s state information commission (SIC) has directed the NMC to upload information that would apply to all other municipal corporations as well, in Maharashtra. This will surely give a shot in the arm to activists in cities like Pune, which has witnessed rampant tree felling due to the river front development project (RFD), road-widening and the threat of cutting roads through hills.
 
Mr Pande has directed the public authority, under section 4 of the RTI Act, to pro-actively disclose “entire details about permission granted for felling of trees, plantation done and replantation of uprooted trees, into its official website without any delay.”
 
SIC Pande, in his order, has also directed that “The NMC’s Garden department must suo-motu disclose all details about applications made for chopping of branches, cutting of trees by individuals and project proponents along with date of applications and decision taken including grant of permission or rejection.”
 
The SIC order also directs the NMC to provide details of complaints lodged with the police authorities for illegal tree felling and the status of such cases including registration of first information reports (FIR) and action taken thereafter.
 
This powerful order is all thanks to the RTI application filed by a senior citizen of Nagpur, Pramod Joshi. After failing to procure any information from the public information officer (PIO) and the first appellate authority (FAA), he filed a second appeal with the Nagpur information commission.
 
Mr Joshi argued during the hearing, “I found to my dismay, complete lack of accountability about permissions granted or rejected for cutting of trees, forcing citizens to run from pillar to post to get the permission.”
 
He further added, “According to the provisions of the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, the tree officer of NMC has been empowered to take a decision on felling of trees, plantation and compensatory plantation as per sections 8-10 of this Act. The time frame has been prescribed but seldom adhered to leading to a large number of pending applications and complaints.”
 
Instead, Mr Joshi alleged that the NMC authorities are sitting over genuine applications while turning a Nelson’s Eye towards an allegedly brazen illegal tree racket run by some contractors with the blessings of civic body employees. As a result, the large scale tree felling is conspicuous in the city, leading to reduced green cover. However, he said, while the contractors go scot-free, individual house owners are penalised due to inordinate delay in granting permission for chopping of a branch posing obstruction to households. 
 
Garden superintendent Amol Chaurpagar of NMC informed the SIC that NMC has already undertaken the tree census which will provide authentic data about the green cover of the second capital of Maharashtra. He also promised to put all available data on the official website.
 
The SIC stated in his decision, “Co-operation by the garden superintendent will provide all details about trees and green cover along with trees planted by each individual and project proponents which can be verified by public-spirited citizens and such a public audit is necessary. Often, the absence of any credible details leads to conflicts between activists and authorities.” 
 
When contacted by Moneylife, Mr Pande also pointed to another important decision on the NMC, regarding uploading maps of public utility lines and compiling details of waste water lines and water pipelines. This would also be relevant to other municipal corporations in Maharashtra.
 
States Mr Pande, “Often the NMC is flooded with complaints of alleged unauthorised construction on waste water lines leading to inconvenience to other residents. The NMC has no details about such lines in old city areas in Gandhibag zone.” 
 
Mr Pande has asked the municipal commissioner to direct his subordinates in public health engineering and water and sewage disposal departments, to put in place maps of such utility lines so that they can be properly maintained and encroachments and unauthorised constructions can be removed. This, he said, would reduce friction between neighbours that lead to registration of complaints and police complaints.
 
Indeed, all cities reflect the same pain points. Citizens could use this SIC order to further their cause of pro-active disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act for their respective municipal corporation websites.
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)
 
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