Over 1,000 monkeys may have died in Delhi's Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary after pending bills stopped their food supplies earlier this month, women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi said on Thursday, terming the procurement of fruits and vegetables a Rs 200 crore scam.
The animal-rights activist claimed money meant for feeding the simians and planting fruit-bearing trees was being stolen, demanding a CAG audit of the forest department's accounts and jail terms for guilty officials.
"It's a big scandal. Fruit-bearing trees were to be raised to offset high food bills. Not a single tree has been planted. Annual expenditure of Rs 8 crore for food supplies and trees has doubled in recent years. The entire money is being stolen," Gandhi told HT.
This indicates misuse of crores of rupees since the forest department says it raised 17 lakh trees since 2000 in the 4,845-acre sanctuary that was carved out of the southern ridge area between 1986 and 1991.
It also claims to have done massive eco-restoration in the area, badly degraded due to excessive mining.
Civic authorities have captured over 18,000 monkeys and released them in the sanctuary after a 2007 Delhi high court verdict asked for the simians' relocation.
To offset rising food bills, the forest department was instructed to raise fruit-bearing trees that could be utilized to feed the animals.
HT was the first to report that Asola's monkeys were starving since December 4, when contractors stopped daily supplies of nearly 2,500 kg of fruits and vegetables as bills from March to November remained unpaid.
HT also exposed the sanctuary's spiking food bills in October last year and pointed out that the forest department had failed to hold an open tender for the process.
After an HC notice to the government on Tuesday over the starving monkeys, activists alleged forest department officials tried to tamper with documents to show feeding never stopped. A group of animal activists Wednesday reached the department office and shot a video. "We did so to prevent wrong entries," said an activist.
The department denied all such allegations. "We resumed feeding from Thursday. We are in touch with the finance department to resolve pending issues. Because of excessive mining, the sanctuary is a badly degraded area. It takes time to make it green," said department chief Tarun Coomar.
Activists, however, refused to buy his explanation. "Feeding resumed only when the matter was brought to the notice of L-G Najeeb Jung. The court in 2007 also asked for collection of food offered at temples and its transportation to the sanctuary, but wasn't implemented," said another activist.