Can a Court Order and Protests Save Centenary Trees on Bangladesh's Jessore Road?

Centenary trees at Jessore Road. Screenshot from YouTube.

In a developing country like Bangladesh, large-scale expansion can be harmful as the battle for space threatens the existence of tree canopies. A controversial government decision to cut the century-old canopy trees that line the Jessore-Benapole highway has led to protests from both environmentalists and the public. Last month, the court intervened and halted the decision; however, the fate of these important trees continues to be at risk.

Last year, the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) of Bangladesh decided to cut down 2,700 trees on the Bangladeshi side of the 38-kilometer road from Benapole to the Southwestern city of Jessore in order to make room for a four-lane highway.

The main feature of this road is the existing canopy trees that line either side — some of which are more than 170 years old. On the other side of the border, Jessore road (now known as National Highway 112) extends to Kolkata, the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, featuring similar kinds of trees.

The decision by the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) has caused widespread protests across the country, with protesters demanding that the government cancel its plan. Environmental activists highlighted the fact that the decision will be detrimental to the environment as the trees cover an area of over 210 acres which many consider to be the size of a forest.

People took to social media to underline the significance of these trees. Vlogger Anupam Debashis Roy uploads a video on YouTube explaining why the trees need to be saved:

Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh, a Human Rights NGO, filed a writ petition against the felling of the trees and, on January 18, 2018, a High Court in Bangladesh issued a stay order for six months against the government decision.

Why Jessore Road is famous

In 1840, Kali Poddar Babu, a Jamindar (landlord) of Jessore first took the initiative to build a road from Jessore to Kolkata (that time both belonging to united India) and lot of saplings were planted on both sides of the road to bring beauty to the journey.

The trees have also born witness to two historic refugee exodus': The first during the partition of the Sub-continent in 1947, and the second during country's Liberation War. Millions of refugees passed through the road to shelters in India in 1971 to escape from the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. Seeing the long line of refugees, American poet Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem titled September on Jessore Road. This was sung by Bob Dylan on August 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York for the Concert For Bangladesh, a benefit concert for the refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War:

Development or Heritage?

A similar move by the West Bengal government to fell trees on the Indian side of the Jessore road (NH-112) was also blocked by the court. Environmental activists are proposing a solution that the road in some stretches can be constructed with the trees as a natural divider between the two lanes.

After the stay order from the Bangladeshi court, the government said that they will be looking for options to see if the trees can be spared.

Belayet Hossain Mamun, who works in the movie industry, demands that the Jessore road be declared a national heritage because of its role as witness to the history of refugees.

Unfortunately, some social media users note that the tradition of cutting trees in the name of development is very old. Sobak Nirbak (pseudonym) writes on Facebook:

গাছের জন্য সচেতন নাগরিক এখন কান্না করলেও গাছের কান্না যুগ যুগ পুরানো! দেশের অন্য সড়ক বা মহাসড়ক গুলোর গাছ কাটা ও চুরি কোনটাই থেমে নেই। ঠিক এই সময়ে রাস্তার প্রশস্ত করণে হাজারে হাজারে গাছ কাটা হচ্ছে বা কাটতে হচ্ছে। কর্তিত গাছের বিপরীত নতুন সড়ক বনায়নের পরিকল্পনার অঙ্গীকারও বন অধিদপ্তর করেনি। তারপরেও নাগরিক সচেতনতা সেসব যায়গায় একেবারেই ঘুমন্ত। এই উদাসীনতারও উত্তোরণ চাই!

Many are reacting emotionally hearing about the felling of trees at Jessore Road, but this is not the first time people are crying about it. There are a lot of trees being felled in other parts of the country in so many other roads due to theft or for widening the roads. The forestry department should replace the felled trees with forestation in other parts of the country as a policy. This is also not being done. Our public conscience is sleeping in those areas. We need to overcome this ignorance.

Others are in favor of development and point to the need to make room for road expansion. GM Mithun is a student leader of the ruling party. He wrote on Facebook:

যশোর রোডের গাছ কাটা নিয়ে অনেক কথা হচ্ছে। কিন্তু নতুন কিছু সৃষ্টি করতে, পুরাতন কিছু ত্যাগ করতে হয়, এটাই বাস্তবতা। গাছ গুলোর বেশির ভাগই ভঙ্গুর অবস্থা। রাস্তা অত্যান্ত জরুরী। সুতরাং ঐতিহ্যের কথা বলে চার লেন বাধাগ্রস্থ করা ঠিক হচ্ছে বলে মনে হয় না। …

There have been a lot of discussion on the trees of Jessore road. But to create something new you have to let go of the old. The trees are not in a good shape and affecting the road. The road development is absolutely necessary. So in the name of protection of heritage, we should not block the development into four-lanes.

However, a Facebook page titled Save Trees on Jessore Road, claims that the government statement which cites the proposal of a four-lane highway is inaccurate and, in fact, only provides provisions for the expansion of the existing two-lane road. Via the Right To Information Act, the group obtained and shared the project development plan from the Roads and Highways department of Jessore.

The government plan does not reflect the four-lanes as promised. Image courtesy: Save Trees on Jessore Road Facebook Page.

In a note they claim:

এই প্রকল্পের কাগজপত্র ঘেঁটে দেখা গেছে যে, এখানে রাস্তাটিকে চারলেন তৈরির কোন পরিকল্পনা নেই। রাস্তাটিকে দুই লেন রেখেই প্রকল্পটি বাস্তবায়িত হবে। অর্থাৎ, বর্তমানে যে অবস্থায় আছে প্রায় সেভাবেই রাস্তাটিকে সংস্কার করা হবে। এই প্রকল্পের আউট কাম হিসেবে কয়েকটি বিষয়ের কথা বলা হয়েছে-
০১. রাস্তাটির পুরুত্ব বাড়ানো হবে ০২. বর্তমান রাস্তাটিকেই সংস্কার করা হবে ০৩. রাস্তার দুই পাশে হার্ড শোল্ডার নির্মাণ করা হবে ০৪. আরসিসি কালভার্ট নির্মাণ করা হবে ০৫. কিছু ড্রেন তৈরি করা হবে ০৬. রোড সেফটি মার্কার ও রোড লাইনার আঁকা হবে।

We have seen the project plan and that revealed that the road is not being upgraded to four lanes (at least now). They are developing the existing two lanes. These are stated at the outcome of the project: 01) The thickness of the road is to be increased 02) Renovating the esisting road by widening it 03) Hard shoulders will be built on both sides 04) RCC Box Culverts will be built 05) Some dranes will be built 06) Road Safety marker and road liners will be added.

The landmark judgment in Bangladesh issuing the stay order on Jessore road might have set a precedent in these types of cases as it is now not the only tree-cutting plan being brought to a temporary halt. On February 13, 2018, the High Court issued a stay order to the government to maintain status quo on felling around 4,000 trees on Singair-Hemayetpur road in Manikganj for the next six months.

The Jessore road in Bangladesh and the NH112 in India will be part of the proposed Asian Highway (AH1). The AH1 is the longest route of the Asian Highway Network, running 20,557 km (12,774 mi) from Tokyo, Japan via many Asian countries to the border between Turkey and Bulgaria west of Istanbul where it finally joins with European route E80. As Bangladesh and India are caught between a desire for development and preservation, it remains to be seen whether or not the canopy trees of the Jessore road on both sides of the border will survive the pressure.

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