Spotlight on rot in forest dept with Odisha’s highest-ranked official’s arrest
As Odisha vigilance department digs up more details on the disproportionate assets case of addl PCCF (principal chief conservator of forests) Abhay Kant Pathak, the highest-ranked forest official in Odisha to ever face a corruption case, Odisha vigilance records show at least 82 forest officials from the state, ranging from forest guard to CCF, have been accused of corruption in last 5 years.
A 1987 batch IFS officer of Odisha cadre, Pathak served as additional PCCF (plan, programme and afforestation) and was all set to become the next principal chief conservator of forests from June next year as per his seniority level, till the vigilance officials raided his residence and other premises, accusing him of amassing disproportionate assets worth Rs 9.35 crore, which was 435 % of his total income.
Vigilance department officials said the amount is the highest disproportionate asset amassed by any forest officer of Odisha till date. Arrested along with his son Akash Pathak, who has been charged with duping many job aspirants with the false promise of employment in Tata Motors in lieu of money, the father-son duo is likely to stay behind bars for some time, said vigilance officials.
While Pathak is the topmost forest official to be charged with corruption in Odisha, vigilance records show 82 forest officials have been charged with cases of corruption in last 5 years.
In August this year, Alok Ranjan Hota, divisional forest officer of Chilika Wildlife Division was found to be in possession of disproportionate assets worth Rs 77 lakh. In February 2016, vigilance seized Rs 1.10 crore cash from Athgarh DFO Sudhanshu Sekhar Mishra, while in February 2017, Sarat Chandra Panda, DFO of Khariar, was arrested by vigilance dept on charges of having disproportionate assets of Rs 4.5 crores. In March 2017, DFO Mahadeb Badaika, working in works department, was raided in disproportionate assets case.
Besides, there have been numerous forest guards, range officers and forest rangers, foresters, junior clerks in the forest department accused of corruption in last the 5 years.
Environmentalists alleged that the forest department has become a hub of corruption where official are defalcating money from several state forest-related schemes as well as from lucrative postings like Kendu-leaf and mining divisions.
“Corruption is often linked with long tenures of officers /staff beyond the normal posting period of 3 years. Very often people in lucrative posts pay heavy bribes or use political influence to ensure that they are not transferred. This is one of the chief breeding grounds for corruption. There are numerous cases of Range Officers posted for as long as 5-6 years in the same post. DFOs/range officers who are on the “Agreed List” or “Doubtful Integrity List” prepared by the vigilance are given lucrative field posts where the scope of corruption is high. A strict policy should be not to post such officers to any key posts in the field or allow them to handle huge sums of money,” said environmental activist Biswajit Mohanty.
Pathak, who worked as additional PCCF of afforestation and planning in the state forest department since June 2018, was in charge of a huge budget for afforestation that included money from CAMPA fund, NREGS as well as plantation under state schemes. During the current financial year 2020-21, the state forest department had formulated forestry projects of Rs 602 crores under NREGA that included plantations of around 40,000 hectares of area, 5,000 kilometer avenue plantation and distribution of 3.5 crore seedlings. In 2019, Centre had released Rs 5,933 crore of CAMPA fund to Odisha, the highest among all states.
Neither state forest secretary Mona Sharma nor principal chief conservator of forest Sandip Tripathy responded to queries on the steps being taken to cleanse the forest department of corrupt officials.
RTI activist Pradip Pradhan, who has been seeking details about various expenditures of forest department, said while the forest officials had scope for amassing money from smuggling of valuable timbers and forests products, allowing mine owners to extract mineral in forest areas and allow illegal trade in Kendu leaves, the failure of vigilance department to convict them was the major deterrence.
“The vigilance department has a poor track record when it comes to conviction. It creates a sensation during arrest and lodging of cases against officials, but its paperwork is very poor. As a result, cases don’t stand in court of law,” said Pradhan.