Ground Reports

‘Mini Chipko’ In Bengal: Protest For ‘Not Murdering’ Trees On The Jessore Road

Calcutta eco-warriors push citizens’ movement to save century-old Jessore Road trees from deadly fate.

By Zaina Azhar Sayeda, 7 Apr 2023

Photo credit: Anshuman Das

Scores of Kolkata residents took to the streets last week in protest against the Supreme Court order approving cutting down of century-old trees on Jessore Road. The outcome of the long-running case of mammoth Jessore Road trees lining the national highway connecting India-Bangladesh was not welcomed by the local committees rallying for their protection.

The case which was first heard in Calcutta High Court in 2017, progressed to the Supreme Court in the following years with the final verdict being handed on February 8. Although the slashing of over 300 Rain trees (Monkey pod tree) for construction of railway over bridges was confirmed the Bengali eco-warriors refuse to accept the trees’ deadly fate.

Jessore Road Gaach Banchao Committee (JRGBC) is one of the frontrunners of the people’s movement around the trees with them leading regular protests to create momentum. Committee executive Anshuman Das said the only way now to keep the trees alive was if the state government dropped the “development project”.

Photo credit: Anshuman Das

Some of the trees lining the Jessore Road are believed to be as old as the road itself with the Zamindar who constructed it about 180 years ago having planted several trees along the 108 km-stretch. Many other kinds of trees have since been planted with about 4000 now on the 70 km of the Indian side of the highway.

In its proceedings, the Supreme Court acknowledged the historical significance of the trees but said cutting them down was an important step for the development of the area. Das along with about 250 others was present at Kolkata’s Dharmatala’s Square last month, demanding heritage status for the trees planted 100-180 years ago, “People who are against the verdict of the supreme court are trying to create the momentum, bring in mass.”

Das argues the axing of trees will not just kill the trees but the entire ecosystem that has existed for over a 100 years. “Let me tell you one thing – very old trees, they have many habitants. Many species of insects, birds, algae – and even other plant species have grown around the trees. A report says that about 60 species of birds and insects live in one tree,” he writes in his blog.

In a JRGBC meeting the scientists present said, “the estimate of a 50 year old tree could run into almost 3.5 crores, if you consider its contribution to the environment.”

The real issue, Das believes, is the contradictory development projects the government is pushing despite its pledge towards more sustainable practices.

“The overarching question is, is this the way of doing developing projects? In 2021, in India, we have cut down 33 lakh trees and that’s just for the government projects. Government should be responsible for coming up with alternative ways of development, one that doesn’t involve cutting trees,” he added.

Das believes the widening of the two-lane road is not the fix the government claims it to be for the myriad issues it says are stemming from their existence. The blame for ambulances not being able to reach Calcutta hospitals in time, inadequate India-Bangladesh trade and casualties from neglected branches of trees falling on passersby is all put on the Jessore Road trees.

“Calcutta is about 100 km from there so the question is why are all patients of West Bengal being taken to Calcutta, what does that tell us about the state of hospitals in other parts of West Bengal? Why do you have to take a critical heart attack patient to a hospital 100 km away,” Das said.

The environmental committee believes the lack of a government-appointed professional caretaker for the trees has led to several incidents involving dead branches injuring passersby, which is now being cited as a reason to axe the trees altogether.

“The trees like any other tree need to be looked after, they need treatment and regular cutting of dead branches but there is no government professional doing that which is why sometimes there are incidents where branches fall on people’s head and cause injuries,” Das said.

He shared a Facebook post written by fellow protestor Malini Mukherjee outlining the issue. “It was said that many trees were being poisoned so that they would die. It’s okay to cut down dead trees,” the post read.

Das says, “We were told that the stretch is 3-4 degrees cooler than the rest of the area, and cutting them down will change the rainfall pattern, the underground water level and weather and climate in general.”

The Bangladesh-India connector, Das said, sees a larger number of cargo trucks on the Indian side than on the Bangladesh end which creates a bottle-neck traffic situation.

“So the border situation is like a bottle-neck – no matter how wide the road is, the trucks will be crowded,” Das writes in his blog.

The Jessore Road is also the road taken daily by a large number of local villagers travelling to Calcutta for work which has been listed as a contributor to the traffic congestion.

“Why not create job opportunities in every panchayat? Why should everyone rush towards the city with a nose and mouth?” Das said.

Photo credit: Anshuman Das

The public opinion on whether or not the trees should go is divided with Das calling it a complicated situation.

He says, “Local people are actually in favour of cutting the trees, that’s also a big issue. There are various reasons for it, the accidents that have happened under the trees because of the branches falling have made them think it’s better for the trees to be cut.”

“The trees are huge, they also have huge timber value so there is local interest by timber merchants who are looking for trees to be cut down,” he said.

The sale of the trees is estimated to be anywhere between 15-30 lakhs for each tree and about 300 crore for the entire stretch.

Then there are those who are so occupied with the mortal struggles of obtaining basic necessities of life that caring about cutting down trees does not make the cut on their list of priorities.

“The vast masses of common people whose toil of earning a daily meal of rice has become so all-consuming that environmental concerns are nothing more than a luxury to them,” Das writes.

With 2023 being the 50th Anniversary of the revolutionary Chipko movement started by villagers in Uttarakhand resisting government orders on axing of trees, the case of the Jessore Road trees goes to show not much has changed since.

Protests for conversation of Jessore Road trees were held on site on April 4 and 7 with more to be organised in the future as the date for the axing of the trees still remains unclear.