Mullaperiyar row: Pinarayi mum even as Roshy, Saseendran pass the buck

Thiruvananthapuram: Even as the controversial order allowing Tamil Nadu to fell 15 trees close to the Mullaperiyar baby dam had to be frozen and the officer who issued it was suspended the other day, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is mum over the sensitive issue which may mar the state's cause in the litigation with Tamil Nadu. His two ministers, however, continue to wash their hands of the row by feigning ignorance about critical meetings that took a call on granting the nod.

Vijayan's silence is baffling since he is known to make statements to clarify the government's stand on important issues to put controversies to rest.

The Chief Minister may clear the air on the issue in a meet of the Left Democratic Front or CPM secretariat. But in both the fora, his word is final, and no questions will be raised.

Chief Minister has so far only assured the Head of the Forest Department and the Association of the Indian Forest Service officers that he would examine the circumstances that led to the suspension of Bennichen Thomas, the Chief Wildlife Warden of the Forest Department, who had issued the order, now quashed.

Emerging evidence revealed that the higher-ups in the Kerala government were indeed aware of the order and a few meetings held to take a call on it, Water Resources and Forest ministers, Roshy Augustine and A K Saseendran respectively, have been insisting that they were in the dark.

The Mullaperiyar dam has been a contentious issue with both Kerala and Tamil Nadu locked in a legal battle over replacing the existing 126-year-old main structure with a new one. What is baffling is whether a crucial decision on such an issue could be made with the knowledge of only two department heads.

If that is the case, Additional Chief Secretary (Water Resources) T K Jose and Principal Secretary (Forest) Rajesh Kumar Sinha are responsible for the order favouring Tamil Nadu. However, only the Chief Wildlife Warden Bennichen Thomas, who issued the order, has been suspended, raising the question whether chief wildlife wardens are making decisions on interstate issues in the Pinaryi Vijayan-led government.

Bennichen's defence
Replying to a show-cause notice, Bennichen said he issued the order based on talks at the Additional Chief Secretary level. Jose and Sinha had attended the meetings, which triggers yet another question, whether the senior officials would make such a decision without the knowledge of Water Resources Minister Roshy Augustine and Forest Minister A K Saseendran.

The ministers, meanwhile, have been passing the buck, reiterating that they were unaware of the order. But will the officials dare to pass an order on such an issue without the knowledge of the ministers concerned?

Normally, the Chief Minister and State Advocate General should have seen the relevant file before granting the permission. It would have also been prudent to discuss the issue in the Cabinet to make it more authentic.

Incidentally, Kerala's standing counsel at the Supreme Court G Prakash made a written submission before the court on October 27, saying a secretary-level meeting had reached an understanding to grant Tamil Nadu permission to axe and remove trees from the baby dam site. If the submission was made without the knowledge of the Chief Minister or his office, those concerned should be made answerable.

The granting of permission to fell 15 trees came to light following a thanksgiving letter from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin to his Kerala counterpart Pinarayi Vijayan. Kerala responded by cancelling the order as the revelation created a furore.

Mani backs Roshy
Meanwhile, Kerala Congress (Mani) Chairman Jose K Mani has publicly announced the party's support to Minister Augustine. But the situation is not comfortable for Forest Minister Saseendran. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is convening a meeting in Kochi on Sunday to discuss its minister's failure in the issue.  

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