It seems no one was responsible for the axing of around 1 lakh trees in 17 villages of Rupnagar and SAS Nagar 11 years ago, as a case related to fixing responsibility was closed last week.
An SAS Nagar district court accepted the closure report against 14 officers in the case in which the Punjab vigilance bureau had originally named 16 senior forest officers for causing a loss of Rs. 100 crore due to the axing of these trees. The case was registered after a thorough probe, but could not proceed further after the Punjab government refused to grant prosecution sanction, leading to the filing of the closure report.
In 2003, 16 officers, most of them high-ranked, allegedly got axed nearly 1 lakh trees in 17 villages of Ropar and SAS Nagar, in connivance with private contractors for a private gain, violating several rules.
Deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Kashmir Singh, who conducted the investigation, found several violations on the part of the forest range officer of Nurpur Bedi.
Before any tree is to cut, it is to be marked and entries made in the government records. The DSP found that the entire marking of the trees was done in undue haste in just five months.
It was also found that private contractors were given permits to mark the trees, ignoring set procedures. It was detected by the investigating officer that the marking of trees to be axed was done in a shoddy and wrong manner. Officially, the contractors were given permission to cut 75,000 trees, but due to the wrong marking of trees and with the alleged grant of the wrong permit, more than 1 lakh trees were finally felled. A contractor also cut firewood illegally.
The inquiry concluded that the cost of the 1 lakh trees was around Rs. 6 crore. The report mentioned the environmental loss, based on forest department parameters, at around Rs. 100 crore. It was found that the officers even allowed the contractor to carry illegally cut trees to their blocks.
No register of the axing was maintained, as mandated by the rules, and to regularise mass felling, damage reports were issued, based on tampered records.
The case was registered at Phase 1 police station, SAS Nagar. Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers HS Grewal and Parveen Kumar, Punjab Forest Service (PFS) officer Dev Raj Sharma, range officer Baldev Singh and others were named. Later, Kumar and Grewal were found innocent, while the other 14 have now been let off in the case.
When contacted, Viswajeet Khanna, financial commissioner-cum-secretary, department of forests and wildlife, Punjab, said, “I am not aware of the case and cannot comment on it.”
A senior officer in the forest department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Then finance commissioner-cum-secretary, wildlife and forests, Punjab, refused to grant permission to launch criminal prosecution against the said officers, reportedly on the specious ground that the officers were senior in rank and the fact that so many of them were said to be involved.”
The private contractors were also let off. The case was registered under Section 13(a)(c)(d) read with Section 13 (2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and sections 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant), 467 (forgery of valuable security, will, etc.), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating.), 471 (forging document) and 120-B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sections 4 and 5 of the Land Preservation Act, 1900.