Even though smuggled timber loads were seized in February and March, things went under the radar until two weeks ago when a truckload of rosewood was seized from a timber yard in Ernakulam.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)
Even though smuggled timber loads were seized in February and March, things went under the radar until two weeks ago when a truckload of rosewood was seized from a timber yard in Ernakulam.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

Centre seeks report on ‘illegal’ tree felling in Kerala

The Kerala forest department said that the trees were felled in the revenue land given to farmers under the Kerala Land Assignment Act.
By Ramesh Babu, Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram
UPDATED ON JUN 11, 2021 01:06 AM IST

Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar on Thursday sought a report into the illegal felling of trees worth crores of rupees in the ecologically sensitive Wayanad and other districts in Kerala last year under the cover of a state government order.

The Kerala forest department said that the trees were felled in the revenue land given to farmers under the Kerala Land Assignment Act. An amendment was introduced last October in the Kerala Forest (Prohibition of Felling Trees Standing or Temporarily or Permanently Assigned) Rules, 1995, that permitted landowners to cut all reserved trees other than sandal. The order was heavily criticised by many green activists and district collectors also opposed it and it was withdrawn in February. But damage was already done.

“It was outright loot. The weird order was issued with the knowledge of the political leadership and the role of two ministers in the last government should be probed,” said minister of state for external affairs V Muraleedharan, who comes from Kerala, after briefing Javadekar. But he didn’t name the two former ministers.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) shot back and said the minister was raking up the tree felling case to divert attention from the highway heist case in which allegations of ‘hawala’ connections were levelled against the Kerala BJP leadership, and the alleged bribery to an Independent candidate that led to the filing of a case against BJP state president K Surendran. “It is an attempt to divert attention from serious charges against the BJP,” said CPI (M) leader A Anandan.

State forest minister A K Saseendran also said the government has nothing to hide. “We haven’t got any communiqué from the Union government. The government has already ordered a probe into this. We have made it clear in the assembly that all involved will be punished,” said the minister, adding that a preliminary report he had asked top forest officials to submit has already pointed out serious lapses on the part of forest and revenue officials.

Even though smuggled timber loads were seized in February and March, things went under the radar until two weeks ago when a truckload of rosewood was seized from a timber yard in Ernakulam. On Wednesday, during the hearing on a petition in the Kerala high court on this, the state government admitted that the revelations are only the tip of the iceberg.

Forest and revenue officials have seized timber worth 15 crore so far, but conservationists say trees worth 500 crore were cut in four districts. They also alleged that tree felling was rampant as the LDF government’s previous term was coming to an end, but they ignored it as they were busy with the elections.

N Badusha, leader of NGO Wayanad Prakruti Samrakshana Samiti, said nature lovers had alerted officials about this several times. He said in Muttil (Wayanad) alone, 100 trees, mainly rose wood, were cut, and trees worth crores were axed in Wayanad alone. Two years ago, Wayanaad had witnessed many landslides and flash floods.

“It is a typical example of government apathy. In the name of a weird order, trees worth several crores of rupees were smuggled. Some of the trees were very old and of iconic value,” Badusha said, adding that many officials were part of this smuggling.

Forest and revenue departments have registered 43 cases so far, but these have been mostly against farmers, drivers, truck owners and lower-ranking officials. A tribal farmer named Andiyar, facing a case, said he agreed to cut his rosewood tree on the order of government officials and was paid 85,000 — a measly sum, argue conservationists who estimate that the tree would have fetched at least 10 lakh.

With the lid off on the Wayanad case, similar incidents were reported from Idukki, Kasaragod, Kannur, and Thrissur districts. On Wednesday, the high court had rejected a plea to stay the cases registered in this regard. Opposing the plea filed by two accused, Anto Augustin and Roji Augustin, the prosecution said massive tree felling was done by misrepresenting a government order and a clear picture will emerge only after a high-level inquiry. A conservationist in Thrissur, Abdul Salam, said trees worth 5 crore were cut in Macchad area in the district.

One of the accused, Roji Augustin, later gave an interview to a Malayalam news channel in which he claimed that he paid 25 lakh as bribe to many revenue and forest officials.

Meanwhile Congress legislator P T Thomas released a photograph on Thursday which showed chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan shaking hands with one of the accused at a function in Kozhikode last year. HT could not verify the authenticity of the photo.

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