A few hundred illegal sawmills are secretly operating in the state despite the Supreme Court’s May ruling that they should stop immediately.
In May, Hindustan Times had exposed how 350 illegal sawmills operated in connivance with forest officials even after the SC ruling. Former Forest Minister Surupsingh Naik and Additional Chief Secretary Ashok Khot were sentenced to one month imprisonment for facilitating licences to six sawmills.
However, a recent investigation by the newspaper and an environmental group showed that hundreds of such mills were back in business. A forest official had tipped off HT and a Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) activist that the illegal sawmills operated after nightfall in Pune.
There were other details like officials upping the bribe from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per month to look the other way. The illegal sawing had begun some time in October, five months after a crackdown across the state.
Well past midnight, the HT team slipped into Pune’s New Timber Market. The sawdust-swept streets were deserted. A huge quantity of freshly cut timber was strewn all over, and there were more than two dozen sawcutting units of different sizes. Dozens of bullock carts were loaded with logs. Huge quantities of cut wood of assorted sizes were stacked outside some of the units.
In one of the active sawmills, the manager identified himself as Afzal-bhai. He claimed he was acting on behalf of the owner, Shriraz-bhai.
Shirazbhai’s sawmill was declared illegal in a government notification in May this year. Afzal not only admitted that the sawmill was operating illegally, but was more than willing to supply a huge consignment of wood.
Activist Manish Moge, who was the decoy, found another sawmill nearby using electricity in violation of the SC ruling. The attendant said he was not aware of any violation. “The forest department should have dismantled the electric power saw cutting machines after the May crackdown. Power to these illegal units were not discontinued,” said Moge, who had filed a petition against erring forest officials.
The running of unauthorised sawmills in Pune comes at a time when Bharatiya Janata Party alleged on December 4 that there were about 112 illegal units in and around Shirala and Sangli alone.
State Secretary, Forests, Neela Satyanarayan said she would have to speak to officials concerned to get details on the illegal sawmill operations in Pune and Sangli before initiating action. “I am Nagpur and will have to get the details,” she said.
BJP functionary Atul Kulkarni has also accused the government of not initiating action against the 20-odd forest officials found guilty during the May crackdown. Most of them had escaped with simple punishments like transfers, he said.