R S TEJUS:
Vested interests, lackadaisical and petrified behaviour of some of the top brass of the Forest department has incurred a lot of criticism from activists, experts, environmental & social groups, and of course, the people. What should have been our forest wealth and what it is today – needs to be questioned and pondered upon again and again.
In this background, Green Minute brings to you some inspiring and memorable experiences of the most decorated forest officers of Karnataka state – B K Singh, IFS, retired PCCF and Head of Forest Force.
From his field notes, one can garner how important it is to have coordinated efforts for all conservation and wildlife protection issues. This interview is unfiltered & is a learning tool for all foresters and is presented by greenminute.in.
LACK OF INTER-DEPARTMENTAL COORDINATION
Forest officers have deliberately not followed the inter-departmental coordination and plundered the tree growth of the district.
We have seen how Kodagu district has faced climatic catastrophes like heavy rains, flooding, landslides, etc, since 2017. This has caused enough human misery, and all responsible persons have gone scot-free.
Where coordination is lacking, forests and wildlife properties are destroyed. In the 90s and early part of this century, a Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP) was posted at Makuta (Kodagu district on Kerala border). This deployment aimed to prevent the smuggling of rosewood and other important tree species from Karnataka forests.
Kodagu is a hilly district deep inside the Western Ghats extending over a 4200 square km area. It had tree growth all over, but only 1700 square km was notified forests, including Protected Areas.
More than 70% of the remaining 2,500 square kilometre area comprise luxuriant tree cover but in the control of the revenue department.
These areas have different confusing land tenure, and a significant chunk of it has been granted to private individuals for coffee cultivation.
The permission for felling trees in such coffee areas is governed by the Karnataka (Preservation) of Trees Act, where forest officers are empowered to regulate. Forest officers grant the tree felling permission, but by referring the case to Deputy Commissioner, they must ensure that the applicant has the right over the tree growth.
Forest officers, in connivance with revenue officers and police, have plundered the tree growth from private land, illegally from Government land, and from notified forests.
All the timber has been transported to Kerala via Makuta gate in the presence of KSRP personnel. Several cases of irregularity in felling permissions between 1990 and 1993 were referred to the then Secretary (Environment), Dr A N Yellappa Reddy, for inquiry and report.
INDICTMENT OF FOREST OFFICERS
His report to the government in 1994 indicting several forest officers highlights how the files were built up without being referred to Deputy Commissioner and also how mafi pass permits were misused to smuggle materials from government lands (Paisari, bane, and Reserved Forests). No action was ever taken on defaulting forest officers.
As a result, officers were emboldened, and the plundering of forests continued. Some more officers followed the trick, subsequently overlooking coordination and cooperation dharma with sister departments in the district and continued destruction of forests.
When the illegality and destruction peaked, Air Marshal Cariappa moved the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court of India.
CEC conducted an inquiry in 2008-09 and named several officers and politicians for violating environmental laws. Since then, Supreme Court referred the case to National Green Tribunal, which remained pending for several years. Only recently, National Green Tribunal directed the State of Karnataka to take action against the defaulting officers indicted in the CEC report.
The Karnataka State Government so far has not taken any action against anyone. This has again emboldened officers to commit irregularities deliberately and plunder the tree growth of the district.
In fact, Deputy Conservator of Forests Virajpet Chakrapani has been placed under suspension recently in fresh cases of abnormalities leading to the destruction of forests.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
B K Singh’s success during his tenure as Deputy Conservator of Forests, Kollegal from 1988 to 1991 entirely depended upon the coordination with the Police force. But for the security they provided, the forest areas would not have been patrolled, and flora and fauna would not have been conserved.
Earlier, the Forest Department, alone, was facing the bullets of Veerappan and the gang, but later attention of senior Police officers and a large deployment of the Police Force brought a phenomenal change in the situation.
Veerappan’s nefarious activities like poaching of elephants and smuggling of sandalwood trees were halted, and the gang members were made to lie low in their hideouts in forests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Coordination with Tamil Nadu Forest and Police Departments was equally useful in containing the gang’s activities in the hilly terrains of forests, where villagers were terrorized.
No credible information regarding the movement of Veerappan came from Ground Zero.
Whenever a villager was caught for any minor offense in the forests and asked to share the location of the gang members, he invariably said that he would be killed if he did so and added that the forest and police personnel would take him into custody and thrash him.
In this background, the usefulness of coordination from the sister organizations across the state border made the patrolling and verification of hideouts relatively easy.
It took nearly 15 years for both states to end the menace of Veerappan. The main reasons for the delay were – areas’ vastness, strategic hideouts inside the forests, poor road network, hilly terrain where patrolling on foot was a challenge. Nevertheless, the coordinated approach of both states helped in eliminating the problem.