Why Forest Minister Saseendran reversed decision not to book Babu for trespassing into forest land

AK Saseendran, Trekker Babu
AK Saseendran, Trekker Babu

Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala’s Forest Minister A K Saseendran reversed his stand and gave his nod to file a case against R Babu, a youth hailing from Malampuzha in Palakkad who had illegally trespassed into forest land and was trapped in a hill, based on advice by senior Forest Department officials.

Babu was trapped in a cleft on the mountain face for nearly two days before the rescue teams of the Army were able to reach him, provide him food and water and then haul him to safety on Wednesday morning.

Babu airlifted to hospital after being rescued
Babu airlifted to hospital after being rescued

The minister had earlier announced that Babu and his friends, who had scaled Kurumbachi Hill, would be spared of legal action on humanitarian grounds. 

However, senior officials pointed out to Saseendran about legal issues if Babu was let off. 

Babu airlifted to hospital after being rescued
Babu airlifted to hospital after being rescued

Moreover, the leading union of Forest Department employees had issued a statement against the minister on the issue. Yet another reason for Saseendran’s about-turn was an alert issued by the Intelligence Wing of the Forest Department regarding the long-term consequences of the minister’s initial decision.

Incidentally, Forest Department officials in Palakkad had wanted to file a case against Babu, but were dissuaded by some of their seniors at the Forest Headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. 

Subsequently, the minister convened a meeting of Principal Secretary (Forests) and Chief Wildlife Warden last Saturday. After the meeting, Saseendran conducted a news conference in his chamber and announced that no case would be registered against Babu.  

“The Forest officials will take Babu’s statement and close the issue. The Chief Wildlife Warden has been directed not to book Babu,” Saseendran had told reporters.

Indian Army personnel rescue Babu from the cleft in in Kurumbachi Hills
Indian Army personnel rescue Babu from the cleft in in Kurumbachi Hills

“This is an extraordinary response to an extraordinary situation. The government has no intention to harass Babu’s family. Babu’s mother too had pleaded with us not to book him considering the young man’s future,” he added.

However, Saseendran also said that the decision to spare Babu will not set a precedent. “Everyone is bound to obey the law,” he said.

Later, a statement was issued by the Palakkad district committee of the Kerala Forest Protective Staff Association criticizing the decision to spare Babu. Incidentally, the statement did not name Saseendran or other senior officials.

Unauthorized trekking in the forest was a punishable offence, it was pointed out. Allowing Babu to go scot-free would encourage people to trespass into the forest for trekking, poaching and cultivating banned crops such as cannabis, the association’s district secretary K Sudhish Kumar said. 

However, the state leadership of the association said that the Palakkad unit had issued the statement without its permission.

What the law says

According to the law, entry into a reserve forest or engaging in illegal acts there would invite a jail sentence of one to five years and a fine of Rs 1,000-5,000. Even plucking of leaves, uprooting shrubs and planting of saplings would invite punishment. 

Trespassers could also be ordered to pay compensation for the loss suffered to the forest by their careless actions. Similarly, if a person carries out farming in the forest, his crop could be attached by the government. 

Forest officials concerned

With the government deciding to book Babu, Forest officials in Palakkad are worried. This is because the Intelligence reported a lapse on the part of the Forest Department that helped Babu and his friends to venture into the forest. Based on this report, departmental inquiry and action are likely against the Forest officials who were on duty then.

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