How a senior forest official conspired with timber smugglers to trap upright officers, and failed

How a senior forest official conspired with timber smugglers to trap upright officers, and failed
(L) NT Sajan, the northern region's conservator of forests (social forestry), (R) Roji Augustine, the main accused in the Muttil South tree-felling case,

Here is a timber brigand's two-step guide on how to dodge the law after looting government trees.

One, create an imaginary tree-felling case and use a pliable high-ranking forest officer to redirect the attention of officers probing the original loot to the imaginary one. Two, use the same pliable officer to foist false and preposterous charges on the brave and upright officer who had caught the brigand red-handed.

Roji Augustine, the main accused in the Muttil South tree-felling case that involved the illegal cutting down of over 1000 reserved rosewood trees in Wayanad, made N T Sajan, the northern region's conservator of forests (social forestry), do both. But the Forest Department has seen through their game.

An internal report submitted by the additional principal chief conservator of forests (forest, land and resources), Rajesh Ravindran, has found incriminating evidence of what is described as Sajan's “unsavoury association with the accused and their accomplices”.

Curse befalls trees

Roji Augustine had used the controversial Revenue Department circular of October 24, 2020, to cut down rosewood trees that were government property.

The cunningly vague wordings of the circular had given the impression that even reserved trees, except sandal, could be cut. The department was so stunned by what an official called “the epidemic of tree cutting” the circular had set off that it withdrew the circular three months later on February 2 this year. By then, the likes of Roji had heaped logs into mountains in their backyard.

Union Min Prakash Javadekar seeks report on illegal axing of rosewood trees in Kerala

On February 3, Roji stealthily moved his first batch of illegally cut timber, 54 rosewood logs, from Wayanad to a saw mill in Ernakulam using fake documents. The saw mill in Ernakulam, finding the consignment suspicious, notified the authorities. On February 8, a team of forest officials led by Meppady range forest officer Sameer M K confiscated the timber.

Advance planning

Roji refused to cooperate with the probe and, on February 9, called a press conference to say that he was framed by the forest officials. As proof, he produced the copy of Form IV that was received by the Kalpetta Divisional Forest Office on February 6. (Form IV is the pass required for the intra-state movement of timber).

The day after the press conference, on February 10, P Dhanesh Kumar, then Kozhikode flying squad DFO, probed Roji's claim and found that he had brought the form to the Divisional Forest Office at Kalpetta on the morning of February 9, minutes before the press conference, and coerced the senior superintendent there to falsely record that it had been received by the office on February 6.

Meppady range forest officer Sameer M K
Meppady range forest officer Sameer M K. Photo: Facebook/Sameer M K Edavanna

Mysterious tip-off

On the very same day N T Sajan, who was conservator of forests (social forestry), northern region, talked to Dhanesh about illegal tree felling at Manikunnumala vested forests. This was two days before Sajan was appointed the CF (inspection and evaluation), Kozhikode. He was brought in temporarily, in place of J Devaprasad who had gone on a 12-day leave.

Right from the day of taking over, Sajan seemed too preoccupied with Manikkunnumala. He claimed he had secret information on the felling of rosewood trees at Manikkunnumala vested forests using forged land deeds.

He told officials probing the Muttil case that Manikkunnumala was more important than Muttil and constantly demanded updates on the probe. The day after taking over, Sajan went to Manikkunnumala to verify his "secret information".

On February 15, Sajan sent a report to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance & Forest Intelligence) that said a person (Varikyamakkal Elykutty) with forged title deed had cut all rosewood trees inside forest land with the help of local rosewood timber merchants.

Hollow evidence

APCCF Rajesh Ravindran's probe found that Sajan was unable to substantiate any of his charges with the documents he had submitted as proof.

Sajan's two major charges – that trees were felled in forest land and that the title deed was forged – turned out to be baseless. “The contention that the land from where the trees have been felled at Manikunnumala is part of vested forests is incorrect and has since been clarified as such in the detailed report of the Custodian of Vested Forests on the matter,” the APCCF report said.

The documents the title deed holder used to get permission to cut the trees were also found to be bonafide by “competent authorities in the Revenue Department”.

Way off target

Sajan's real target was Sameer, the Meppady range officer who had confiscated the timber and under whose jurisdiction fell Manikunnumala. His rap sheet against the range officer was that it was he who had given Elykutty permission to cut down trees on the basis of a forged document.

Not only was the land deed genuine, it was also found that Sameer was not the range officer when the permission was granted.

Shady informants

More shockingly, the APCCF's probe found that Sajan had relied solely on the information provided by the prime accused in the Muttil case. The “secret information” Sajan claimed he had came from Anto Augustine, Roji's brother.

“It is clear that it was Anto Augustine who was in touch with N T Sajan IFS, providing him information on the case,” the report said. Before Sajan went to Manikkunnumala on February 15 to see for himself the illegal felling there, the APCCF's probe secured evidence of Sajan's hour-long consultation with Anto inside his official vehicle.

“It is evident from the recorded statement of his driver Yoonus Moti that N T Sajan IFS had met Anto Augustine on February 15, during the day, at least twice,” the report said. It also says that during the first meeting Sajan and Anto sat inside the official vehicle for more than an hour discussing certain documents brought by Anto.

Officer-smuggler combo

That's not all. Later, when he went to inspect tree felling at Manikkunnumala, Sajan was not alone. He was accompanied by Anto and four of his associates. In short, the top forest officer's informants were the close associates of the prime accused in the Muttil tree felling case.

Sajan had gone to Manikkunnumala on February 13, too, and then he was accompanied by a 29-year-old named Vineesh M V. This youngster had later moved a writ petition in the High Court wanting the court to direct the Head of Forest Force to launch an inquiry into the actions of forest officials accused of dereliction of duty in Sajan's report to the PCCF (Vigilance and Forest Intelligence).

The court, while taking up the writ petition, wondered how the petitioner could get hold of a report sent by a deputy conservator of forests to the PCCF. It was revealed that Vineesh was an employee of a news channel in which Roji, the prime accused in the Muttil scandal, had a substantial stake.

Officer jumps the gun

Sajan had also tried to pass off his interest in Manikkunnumala tree felling as merely official, incidental. He said he came to know of the incident only on the day he took over temporary charge as CF (inspection and evaluation).

However, Kozhikode flying squad DFO Dhanesh Kumar testified before the APCCF that Sajan had called him to inquire about Manikkunnumala two days before he took charge, on February 10. Dhanesh said a journalist with a leading channel, Deepak Dharmadom, had also called him on February 10 asking him to speed up the Manikkunnumala probe.

The APCCF's report concludes thus: "It is clear that N T Sajan IFS had acted in a highly undesirable, deplorable and grievous manner, unbecoming of a Civil Servant. That in so doing he was involved with the prime accused (in the Muttil case) and their accomplices makes it even more worse warranting immediate initiation of disciplinary action."

The report was submitted on June 29. Sajan still holds a very important position. He is CF (Social Forestry), Southern Region, Kollam.

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