Thiruvananthapuram/Thrissur: A detailed and effective probe should be launched into the controversial Wayanad tree-felling case, the CPI has demanded.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan ordered a joint probe after considering the CPI’s demand. The party’s ministers were in charge of the revenue and forests departments in the previous Pinarayi Vijayan-led cabinet.
The CPI is pointing an accusing finger at certain officials. The party is of the view that if the previous revenue minister’s order with good intention had been misused, a probe should be carried out to find the guilty.
Former revenue and forest ministers E Chandrasekharan and K Raju, respectively, had presented their versions to the party leadership. The party had not sought any explanation from the former ministers, leaders said.
The Department of Revenue issued the now-controversial order following the pressure exerted by farmers’ organisations, seeking permission to fell trees on revenue (pattaya) land. Additionally, the issue was discussed within the party before issuing the order.
The CPI is not blaming Chandrasekharan since the order had the political approval of the Left Democratic Front. Later, however, the order was cancelled after finding loopholes. The cancellation was also discussed in the party in advance.
The party is open to the probe into the factors that had led to the issuance of the order without a scrutiny by the Department of Law, and also the pass the Forest Department had issued to ship the logs.
The CPI had given up the Forest Department during the sharing of portfolios ahead of the formation of the second Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet.
Nationalist Congress Party’s A K Saseendran, who now holds the department, took an apparent dig at the CPI saying the incident had not happened during his tenure, and hinted that the lapse had happened in the Revenue Department.
Saseendran’s stand had not gone down well with the CPI, and Chandrasekharan repeatedly explained the background under which the order was issued. The issue has vexed the leadership of the party, which has been claiming transparency in governance.
With the Congress and BJP exerting pressure and the court intervening in the issue, the tree-felling case has become the first crisis of the second Pinarayi government.
Case against land owners
Meanwhile, it is alleged that the forest department registered cases against land owners, leaving out its officials who had issued passes for felling trees. The middlemen, who bought trees for a small amount from poor farmers living on revenue land, too, have not been charged.
It is alleged that instead of recovering the timber, the officials are trying to close the case by framing charges against the farmers.
Those living on revenue land had sold the trees based on the forest department’s pass issued after the controversial order. The passes were issued for felling trees, and hence it remains to be seen if the cases against land owners will stand in a court of law.
The passes were signed and issued by respective range officers. No action has been initiated against the officers. Incidentally, some forest department employees had voiced their opposition to the move to save officers and middlemen. Following the opposition, a move has been initiated to prepare a crime report (mahazar) by merely saying that trees have been missing and naming no one.
The department commenced registering cases following reports that agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate may probe the incident. No action was taken on a February 17 Department of Forests order asking to recover the trees and to initiate action against erring officials.
Land owners taken for a ride
It is learned that the land owners were paid a meagre amount for the trees. In several instances, the owners were paid just 5% of the tree’s value, while officials and others were paid 45% as commission. The remaining 50% constituted the profit, which was shared by middlemen and traders.
A land owner at Pulakode in Machad range received Rs 3 lakh for a teakwood tree. The tree changed several hands and a sawmill owner bought it for Rs 54 lakh.
Land owners in several places, including Mandamangalam, received Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 on an average for trees that have a market value of more than Rs 5 lakh.
Even though land has been transferred to farmers based on the Land Assignment Act, 1964, the government has the ownership of trees included in the scheduled category, such as sandalwood, teak, rosewood and ebony. Those holding the title deeds are entitled to fell or sell these trees.
Farmers’ organisations have been demanding a relaxation in the norms for a long time. They demanded that the farmers should have the ownership of trees they had planted or naturally grown on their land. The previous government took a stand favourable to the demand.
However, an amendment to the existing Act was necessary to make the demand legal. An executive order cannot circumvent an existing rule. But the government issued an order without amending the Act, which led to the controversy.
The revenue department had initially issued a circular. After it was pointed out that the circular was unclear, the order was issued. The order stated that all trees farmers had planted on revenue land, naturally grown and those ‘reserved’ after remitting its value to the government belonged to the farmers, and that they may fell the trees. Sandalwood was exempted from the farmers’ ownership.
The order also said that officials who opposed the cutting of trees would face action. The order was misinterpreted to fell centuries-old trees.