SC-appointed committee’s estimate of a tree’s worth opens the conversation on valuing environmental wealth
The five-member committee has pegged the value of a tree at `74,500—`45,000 being the value of oxygen and `20,000 being the value of the biofertilisers it produces in a year—multiplied by its age in years in a report submitted to the apex court.
The Supreme Court last year had set up a committee to determine the value of a tree beyond just timber—there is no doubt that a tree contributes more economic and environmental value than that contained in merely its wood. This was in the backdrop of a plea by the West Bengal government to allow the felling of 356 trees, some of which were ‘heritage’ trees (more than a 100 years old). The five-member committee has pegged the value of a tree at `74,500—`45,000 being the value of oxygen and `20,000 being the value of the biofertilisers it produces in a year—multiplied by its age in years in a report submitted to the apex court. Heritage trees, the report maintains, may be valued even upwards of `1 crore. Read this against the ‘polluter (tree-feller) pays’ principle, and the cost that the West Bengal government must pay (discounting 50 trees already felled), as per the committee, is a whopping `220 crore—the project for which the Bengal government is looking to fell the trees is budgeted at `500 crore. This has led the apex court, which has not accepted the report and sought replies from the Centre and the Bengal government, to remark that, at this valuation, governments would go bankrupt and that the price tag needs to be rationalised.
The report, it must be acknowledged, has started the conversation on valuing environmental wealth; given the climate change and the loss of diversity trajectories, development vision can no longer take a ‘dead wood’ approach as far as environmental wealth is concerned. But, the committee-proposed valuation is a cost that simply can’t be paid for most projects. For instance, is a tree to be valued only on its present age? Given some tree can ‘live forever’, how is the value of such trees to be determined, given felling them means the loss of that future economic/environmental wealth? It would perhaps be better to focus on the other seminal recommendations: that other alternatives to felling must first be considered and exhausted, modern technology should be used to transplant trees if feasible, and that compensatory plantation for tree-loss has to go beyond mere five-saplings per tree felled. The committee says that for each tree with a small crown-size that is felled, 10 saplings should be planted; 25 per tree with a medium crown-size and 50 per tree with a large crown-size. Perhaps, building in diversity preservation and a higher number of replacement saplings for heritage trees or rare trees could be a better way to value a lost tree, along with economic costs wherever this is viable.