Revenue dept's delay in scrapping flawed order behind large-scale felling of trees

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Kozhikode: The ongoing probe into the large-scale axing of protected trees on assigned land in a few districts in Kerala revealed that the revenue department sat on an advice of the Additional Advocate General about the illegality of a controversial order that encouraged logging.

It has come to light that despite getting a clear adverse opinion on the order the revenue department took over two-and-a-half months to scrap it.

During this period protected trees were cut in Wayanad, Thrissur and Ernakulam on a large scale and smuggled out. As reported earlier changes in state government circulars led to the logging. The first circular of the forest department that paved the way for timber loot was issued in last March by overturning decisive recommendations. The final circular was issued by excluding two important sections contained in the draft to prevent illegal felling of protected trees. This particular information is contained in the 198-page file obtained by Manorama from the revenue department.

Backdated order
Reports say the order regarding scrapping of the controversial order was backdated to obviate complaints to the revenue department. This was done as part of a pre-emptive measure when the forest department office in Wayanad started initiating action against large-scale felling of trees.

The 131-page file regarding the matter clearly reveals that the fear of contempt of court actually prompted the then revenue minister E Chandrashekharan to scrap the controversial order. The minister was not goaded by district-level reports that warned about tree felling.

AAG's opinion and belated action
Prior to issuing the controversial order the revenue department had sought legal opinion from additional advocate general on August 26, 2020. Even before getting the legal opinion, the order allowing cutting of trees was issued on the directions of the revenue minister.

However, on November 19 the department received the legal opinion which clearly stated that there were serious legal violations in the circular brought out by the revenue department in March and the order issued in October and hence these should be scrapped immediately.

Despite the High Court staying the March circular the department used the same phrases to bring out the order in October. This would be considered as serious contempt of court.

"In order to avoid strong legal action both the orders need to be scrapped" said the legal opinion given by Additional Advocate General.

But the notings on the document clearly indicate that despite getting such a strong warning the minister and department officials were playing around with the file.

The file was shuttling between minister's office and department. In between a draft was also prepared for issuing revised order.

This particular draft was sent to the law department on November 28 for seeking legal opinion. With law Secretary Aravindan Babu giving a report on January 20 stating that the revised order was not enough and amendment to the existing law was the only option, the revenue minister approved the process of scrapping the order on January 29, 2021.

Department's shrewd move
Even though the order scrapping the permission for tree cutting was issued on February 5, 2021 the date mentioned on the file was February 2. Blackwood tree cut in Muttil in Wayanad was smuggled out on February 3. It is pointed out that the order was issued with a back date to ensure that responsibility of illegal removal of trees from Muttil did not fell on the revenue department.

The forest officials, meanwhile, continued to issue passes for transportation of timber from not only Wayanad but also from Thrissur and Ernakulam districts without knowing that the order had already been scrapped.

By issuing the order with the backdate of February 2, the entire responsibility has come upon the officials who issued the passes. Unable to withstand the pressure on the matter, Machad range officer in Thrissur district swooned in his office on February 7.

Order was aimed at helping farmers: Forest Minister Saseendran
Forest minister A K Saseendran said the former revenue minister E Chandrashekharan had issued the order with good intention and to help the farmers.

The minister said the forest officials misused the order. Not just forest department but even officials of other departments are also involved in the large-scale felling of trees in Muttil.

He said action has been taken against the forest officials of Lakidi in Wayanad who allowed to take away the trees that were cut in Muttil.

Saseendran said action would be initiated against more officials based on the Crime Branch probe.

The forest department's assessment is that 2,410 teak and blackwood trees had been cut from the patta land. Forest officials had earlier pointed out that the exact number of trees would be thrice more than this figure. Trees were also cut from forest land.

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