The small town of Lataguri is situated just out of the Gorumara National Park, covered in green and a fast growing tourist spot. The town is established on both sides of NH 717 making it an important stoppage in Jalpaiguri- Malbazar route which runs through the National Park area. During early 2017, SPOAR members noticed a good number of marked trees in this route alongside the road. To know the reason for marking, SPOAR members submitted RTIs, but none of the authorities cleared the actual reason behind it in the replies to those RTIs. There was a news of a railway over-bridge soon to be built at the Bichabhanga Railway crossing at Lataguri. SPOAR was trying to collect more authentic sources of the news to properly appeal to the responsible authority to stop the unnecessary tree-felling for the construction as there’s only one train that passes through that crossing, the NJP-Chyanrabanda DEMU train.
On 3rd April, 2017, tree felling started and as soon as SPOAR received the news members rushed to the spot and protested the action to protect the trees from being cut down. In front of the pressure from SPOAR and other nature lovers and conservationists the work of cutting the trees were at halt for that time being. On 4th and 5th April the felling was postponed to arrange a meeting with SPOAR and other nature activists from the locality to mitigate the protest against the mass tree felling in Lataguri. But SPOAR disagreed with the demand from the authorities to step away and turned towards building a movement to save the trees from forced destruction.
The next day, 6th April, 2017 SPOAR reached to the spot to check the condition of the trees and was astonished to see that the whole area was swarming with police and RAF. Member activists went closer to the spot and tried to talk to the officials to stop the felling process, but instead eight of the protesters including SPOAR members got arrested at that time. They were released on personal bond later at night. SPOAR decided to take legal action against the tree felling and submitted a “Letter petition” in State High Court on 7th April, 2017 to earn a stay order to stop the ongoing felling. Honourable High Court received the petition and granted a stay order on that very day directing the petitioner to submit a proper move against the activity within 10th April, 2017. SPOAR followed the recommendation and applied properly, suggesting to move the matter to the National Green Tribunal, Eastern Branch, Kolkata. Accepting the prayer the case was moved to the NGT thereafter.
SPOAR claimed that the ongoing felling was unlawful as the felling authority didn’t have permission from all the respected higher authorities, the MoEF&CC or the West Bengal Forest Department. The NGT later declared the felling procedure illegal and directed to continue the stay order at the location until and unless the responsible authority for felling is able to produce all the required legal paper works before the judiciary. The stay order continued up till April, 2018.
While the stay order was on, the felling authority freshly applied to the central government and received the permission for Stage-1 clearance for tree felling on 20.09.2017. This stage-1 clearance had quite a few disparities and ambiguities. SPOAR filed an affidavit on 14th November, 2017. On 18th December, 2017, NGT declared the cause list and the next hearing was scheduled for 6th February, 2018. The long term strike in the state judiciary and the fact that the case couldn’t be moved back to the HC delayed the matter further till May, 2018, and SPOAR decided to move the matter to the NGT, principal branch, New Delhi. SPOAR members reached Delhi and completed the appealing procedure along with discussing the matter with experienced legal practitioners for a better understanding of the situation.
The battle became harder with days as both the state and the central govt. joined together in the project of this Railway Overpass construction. The final hearing in NGT, Principal Branch was scheduled for 9th May, 2018 and the verdict came out in favour of the felling authority. The rest of the trees were scheduled to be taken down on 12th June, 2018, but SPOAR moved against the attempt as there still were some issues with the clarity of the order and the govt. had to collect all the proper papers to finally start the felling. At last, on 17th June the pending tree-felling started at Lataguri. Near about 500 more trees were cut down to make space for the Railway Overpass at the location.
SPOAR has been trying not to leave any stone unturned in the process to stop this massacre on the roadside just out of the boundaries of Gorumara National Park. It’s not any less than an achievement that the felling authority finally were forced not to chop down a good number of marked trees that were touching the boundaries of GNP. Many of the trees are still standing tall with the numbers for felling marked on their bodies.