Timber smuggling in February: Forest minister says he was not in charge then

AK Saseendran
Forest minister A K Saseendran

The Opposition UDF on Tuesday raised a series of uncomfortable questions in the Assembly regarding the illegal felling of rosewood timber trees from Muttil South Village in Wayanad. Dissatisfied by the government's response, the Opposition staged a walk out.

The smugglers could transport 101 timber trees over 100 years old from Wayanad to a timber mill in Perumbavur, Ernakulam, without any supervisory hurdles along the way. The booty was seized only after the load reached Perumbavur and a complaint was lodged by the mill owner. The Meppadi range officer (RO) promptly rushed to Perumbavur and seized the stolen timber. Forest minister A K Saseendran termed the RO's action "timely" in the Assembly today, yet the officer was subjected to some vengeful action by a senior official in the Forest Department.

"How could the illegally cut timber move from Wayanad to Ernakulam without anyone noticing," Congress MLA P T Thomas said while moving an adjournment motion on the issue. "Can it be done without the government's blessing, " he asked.

Thomas also wanted to know whether the accused had contacted him. He even said that the accused had joined the minister's party, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Forest minister A K Saseendran merely said he had no idea whether any of these accused had met him as he did not know who they were.

Thomas said the accused were so influential that they had managed to get the Chief Minister himself to inaugurate one of their newly launched websites (Mango Mobiles). "The Chief Minister was spared only because the police had raided the premises of the accused on the morning of the inauguration, " Thomas said.

The opposition said it was a government order issued on October 24, 2020, that had allowed the forest mafia to steal the timber misleading the tribals and small farmers in Muttil village. The tribals and farmers were told that 60 percent of the money of the trees cut from their land would go to the government and that they, as owners, would get 10 percent.

The order issued by the Revenue Principal Secretary had given permission to title deed holders to cut protected trees grown by them or had grown naturally. The order also prevented official action against such felling of trees. Nonetheless, the order was withdrawn three months later on February 2.

The Forest Minister put forward a surprising argument. "These things happened when I was not the forest minister. I took over only on May 20," Saseendran said, shifting the blame on his predecessor K Raju and former Revenue Minister K Chandrasekharan.

Revenue Minister K Rajan, too, gave an unconvincing reply when the Opposition members asked why no decisive action was taken though the timber was seized in February. "The incident happened during the election period, " he said.

Opposition leader VD Satheesan
Opposition leader VD Satheesan

Opposition leader V D Satheesan was quick to pounce on this. "The order was withdrawn in February. Between October last year and February which election are you speaking of. But by cancelling the order it was clear the government was aware that the order was being misused by the forest mafia, " Satheesan said.

He also said that the Revenue order violated existing laws like Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Areas Act, 2005, and Kerala Forest (Prohibition of Felling of Trees on Land Temporarily or Permanently Assigned) Rules, 1995.

The thrust of the Opposition charge was that the order was issued to help the forest mafia.

Satheesan said the role of an IFS officer in the issue was dubious. "Why he was given a crucial temporary charge when another officer went on leave is another serious issue," Satheesan said.

The IFS officer in the Social Forestry wing of the Forest Department was given temporary posting as in-charge of Forest Vigilance Chief Conservator of Forests. As the Vigilance CCF, this officer had initiated action against the Meppadi RO who according to the forest minister had acted swiftly to seize the smuggled timber. The Meppadi RO was found guilty by the Vigilance CCF in another tree felling case, but it turned out that the RO had not taken charge when the incident had happened.

At the same time, the Northern Zone Principal Chief Conservator of Forests had filed a report against the in-charge CCF. "Why has no action been taken on this report, " Satheesan asked.  

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