A battle is raging over the issue of government decision to reclassify coconut as a palm earlier categorized as a tree. The government decision to amend the law was a technical one as the earlier amendment carried out by the previous government to the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act of 1984 under which coconut was termed as a tree was carried out on the directions of the High Court. That amendment gave two terms for definition of tree. The new decision is primarily aimed at facilitating felling of coconut palms which pose danger to human life and property. Yielding to the growing pressure from opposition and public, the government has promised to make it mandatory to obtain permission from the agriculture department and not from the forest department to cut coconut palms. The delay in amending the law accordingly might hurt the ruling alliance as the opposition would make it an issue in the Assembly elections.
Even though coconut was classified as a tree by the previous government, the law allowed its felling without obtaining permission from the forest department. According to officials, thousands of coconut palms have been felled without obtaining permission, especially by farmers. Besides, 1,239 coconut palms were cut down after obtaining permissions. Official records also reveal that between April 2008 and January 2016, 122 applications were received seeking permission for felling of coconut (palms) trees and none of which were rejected; at the same time the forest department booked 10 cases for cutting of 41 coconut “trees” following complaints from people. Goans are emotionally attached to coconut whether it is classified as palm or a tree. The decision of the BJP-led government to classify coconut tree as palm, which appeared to be hasty and obviously taken without taking people on board, is being seen as one aimed at destruction of groves of coconut palms and hence the agitation. The government could have avoided the situation in which it has landed itself by first creating awareness about the technical fault in the previous amendment as also about the legality that the amendment was not aimed at facilitating wholesale cutting of coconut palms or trees.
Many people, particularly the politicians belonging to the opposition camps and the groups that have been fighting to protect environment have seized the opportunity following the current government’s amendment to resort to an agitation against the decision. Some environmentalists have threatened to revive the famous Chipko movement led by Sunderlal Bahuguna in the forested hills of Uttar Pradesh in which people hugged trees to prevent them from being cut. The activists see the government decision to reclassify coconut as palm as a threat to Goan culture also. Not to be left behind the politicians in the opposition camps have also found the issue as a God-sent opportunity to swing the people to their side and have been resorting to various types of protest tapping the emotional attachment of the Goans with coconut tree or palm. They have been shouting from the rooftops accusing that the government decision was aimed at helping real estate developers. The agitators are not ready to buy the government argument that coconut palm was wrongly defined by the previous government as a tree and that that anomaly had to be corrected as there could not be two different definitions of tree. The issue has been further complicated by the government’s failure to bring in the amendment to ensure check to prevent large scale felling of coconut palms, which it promised following public outcry.
With general elections to the state Assembly due in less than a year from now, the government should take steps to ensure that there is a clear line drawn between the genuine need to cut a coconut tree and the licence to cut down a large number for constructions. It would be in the interest of the state to resolve the issue to the satisfaction of the farmers as well as other members of the public. There is still confusion over the issue as the chairman of the Parliamentary panel on Forests and Environment that visited Goa recently called upon the Goa government to reverse its decision on classification of coconut tree as palm, while state Forest Minister Rajendra Arlekar said the parliamentary panel was not properly informed about the issue involved. The government should come up with the promised amendment making it compulsory for obtaining permission from the agriculture department for felling of coconut trees. That could go some length to allay the fears expressed by the common people that wholesale cutting of coconut trees would not be allowed to facilitate the real estate industry.