A special investigation team (SIT) will probe the Wayanad rosewood scandal which has turned out to be the first major challenge before the second Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of Kerala.
The SIT will investigate alleged illegal felling and smuggling of centuries-old rosewood trees from Wayanad by timber mafia and similar cases.
Crime Branch ADGP S Sreejith will be coordinating the high level investigation, according to an order issued by Chief Secretary V P Joy.
The SIT was formed n view of raging controversy over the timber scandal.
The investigation team would comprise officers from forest and wildlife departments, vigilance and anti-corruption bureau and crime branch.
The chief secretary's order mentions a report of the state police chief which said invaluable natural resources and properties like rosewood trees had been felled and stolen by some people at some places in the state.
"It is suspected to be an outcome of a conspiracy by some people and suggested a detailed investigation to find out the truth of the alleged incidents. The special investigation team was constituted considering the "seriousness, impact and dimensions of the offences,” the top official said.
He also directed the heads of departments concerned to nominate officers with efficiency and excellent track record to the special investigation team and complete the probe in a time-bound manner.
The announcement comes after opposition BJP and Congress intensified criticism against the Left government in connection with the felling of rosewood trees and the Centre sought a report into the incident.
The opposition Congress-led UDF had raised the issue in the Kerala Assembly, accusing the Left government of shielding the culprits.
A BJP-NDA delegation, led by Union Minister V Muraleedharan, on Friday visited Muttil village in Wayanad, where timber worth crore sof rupees had allegedly been felled and smuggled from government-assigned lands earlier this year by the alleged mafia.
The state government had informed the Kerala High Court that a mafia was involved in felling of trees and what was revealed in the investigation was just the tip of the iceberg.
The government had on Friday decided to launch a high-level investigation into the matter.
Order misused: CM
Amid criticism that the rosewood trees were looted under the shield of an order issued by the state government last year, the chief minister said the order was issued considering the requests by the farmers' organisations.
"Farmers from Idukki raised this demand. But some people took advantage of such an order and we will take strong action against them," he said.
The government took the decision to launch the high- level investigation a day after Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar sought a report from the Ministry officials on the issue and a BJP-NDA delegation, led by Union Minister V Muraleedharan, visited Muttil village.
HC refuses to stay probe
The Kerala High Court on Wednesday refused to stay the investigation into the incident.
A plea, seeking to quash the FIRs registered by the Forest Department in connection with various cases of illegal harvest of trees in Muttil village, was filed by Rojo Augustine and Anto Augustine, key accused in the case.
Opposing the plea, the state government said the investigation was in a preliminary stage and the role of the highly influential persons was suspected.
The director general of the prosecution submitted that government officials, including village officers, were facing investigation and whatever came out so far is only the tip of an iceberg.
The trees were looted by misinterpreting a government order, he submitted.
Considering the government's stand, the court refused to stay the investigation.
Meanwhile, considering another plea challenging the government's decision to seize the trees, the High Court sought to know what action has been taken against the officials who gave permission to axe the trees.
The court observed that a vigilance probe has to be issued against the officials responsible for it.
The Opposition Congress-led UDF raised the issue in the Kerala Assembly on Tuesday.
The Opposition has accused the LDF government of shielding the culprits.
Admitting that the government order was misused for felling the trees illegally, Kerala Forest Minister A K Saseendran has said a total of 101 rosewood trees, worth around Rs 10 crore in the market, were found missing from the village.
The opposition asked how the smugglers could ferry the timber worth crores from the northern district to a sawmill in Ernakulam in central Kerala amid the pandemic-induced curbs without the support of the authorities.
They also repeatedly asked whether Forest Minister A K Saseendran had any contact with the culprits behind the crime, reportedly accused in several other cases, at any stage.
Congress MLA P T Thomas alleged that over 40 cases have been registered so far in connection with the illegal tree felling at Muttil village but no one had been arrested yet.
Alleging that the culprits had high-profile connections, he also reiterated the opposition demand for a High Court-monitored probe into the incident.
(With inputs from PTI)