Defying the Supreme Court’s directive to restrict the number of saw mills in the country, the Maharashtra forest department has granted permission to 25 more saw mills and 72 vertical saw machines.
Top forest officials found this during a recent review.
With the department’s clearance, the number of saw mills and vertical saw machines in the state has gone up from 4,191and 4,852 to 4,216 and 4,924 respectively.
This is contrary to the state government affidavit filed before the apex court. Top forest officials are now engaged in a damage control exercise. They do not rule out the possibility of a contempt of court and the likely consequences.
In 2006, Surupsingh Naik, state forest minister at the time, and additional chief secretary (forest) Ashok Khot were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment by the apex court for granting permission to a saw mill.
In its March 1997 order, the court had restrained further sanction of even a single saw mill in the state amid concerns over dwindling forest cover.
Dr Patangarao Kadam, the state forest minister, has pulled up officials for permitting illegal transfer of saw mills from across the state to Nagpur and ordered action against those found guilty.
AK Joshi, the principal chief conservator of forests and head of forest department, chided chief conservators of forest (CCFs) for ignoring the Supreme Court order in a tersely-worded missive. He also sought an explanation for why they defied the Supreme Court ban and wanted details of the sanctioned saw mills operating in their jurisdictions.
Instead of sanctioning new saw mills, the forest officials had routinely approved the shifting them from one division to another.
A high-level government panel report had stated that every saw machine requires 444 cubic mt of timber every year. The total requirement of timber is 21.86 lakh cubic mt while the availability is only 12.28 lakh cubic mt.
About 4.21 lakh cubic mt timber is brought from other states, while 2.47 lakh cubic mt timber is imported. Despite this, the total availability of timber is only 18.96 lakh cubic mt and this shortage will lead to illegal felling of trees, the report had warned.
Joshi pulled up forest officials for their failure to verify the availability of timber in the range where the saw mills were sought to be transferred. Referring to Nagpur, Amravati, Yavatmal, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli enjoying thick forest cover, he said proliferation of saw mills was a dangerous trend.
The proposals to transfer saw mills from one range to these areas were never scrutinised.
Devendra Kumar, additional principal chief conservator of forests, said forest officers had been told to review the cases and submit a report. “If new licence was given by anyone violating the existing law, the officer concerned will be held accountable,” he said.