Mandi (Oct 7): In a landmark judgment, the Himachal Pradesh High Court while disposing of a contempt petition in a case pertaining to blatant violation of Forest (conservation) Act, 1980 in construction of 116 roads on forest land without seeking permission under the aforesaid Act, has taken a serious view of granting NOCs by unauthorized persons like patwaris, range officers, BDOs, etc and directed the additional chief secretary (forests) to take stern action by chargesheeting and launching prosecution against the erring persons within a period of six weeks and completing the inquiry within one year.
According to sources, it was alleged that while the PWD chargesheeted 137 persons guilty of violating the (Forest) Conservation Act, 1980, the undertaking given by the additional chief secretary (forests) in the two affidavits is yet to be complied with. The additional chief secretary (forests) when contacted said he did not remember anything about it. “I submit about 20 affidavits daily in the course of my duties and it is not humanly possible to remember the contents,” he said. Vinay Tandon, principal conservator, forests, could not be contacted despite repeated efforts.
It has also been reported that 27 roads have been constructed on forest land in Karsog sub-division of Mandi district alone without any valid permission. Divisional forest officer HK Sarvata, when contacted, said the mentioned roads are the same, already included in the list of 116 roads given to the high court. No new road has been constructed after that, he explained. He said action was in process against the guilty persons.
After taking into consideration the material placed on record, the high court has also added additional chief secretary, forests, and principal secretary, PWD, as respondents No 4 and No 5 vide its order dated 10.7.2009 with five-point questionnaire. 1) Whether permission under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, was sought and granted before starting construction of roads. ii) If permission was granted, why the range officer, Sarswati Nagar, issued NOC and what action had been taken against him. (iii) Furnish full particulars of the agencies who did the construction work of the link roads without permission under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. vi) Additional chief secretary, forests, and principal secretary, PWD, were directed to give full details of all the roads constructed in the state without the necessary permission and v) The forest secretary has further been directed to explain the manner in which the illicitly felled trees had been disposed of.
Surprisingly, the number of illegally constructed roads was 80 in the first affidavit of additional secretary, forests, which swelled to 116 in the supplementary affidavit. The court observed it was a “startling figure”.
The additional chief secretary advised the deputy commissioners and PS, rural development, to initiate action against defaulting patwaris and BDO Jubbal for constructing roads on forest land without valid permission under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
The court observed that it was imperative for the government and private agencies engaged in the construction of roads to ensure that no road is constructed without permission from the government of India under the Forests (Conservation) Act, 1980. It was held that the agencies which constructed roads without permission were guilty of undertaking construction despite mandatory directions by the high court from time to time.
The court has also held the forest department guilty of compounding the forest offences in violation of section 68 of the Indian Forest Act and directed the state government to take stern action including departmental and launching of prosecution against illicit felling. It has been held in unequivocal terms that no construction of roads shall be undertaken in the forest area without prior permission under the Act.
The high court vide its order dated 20.2009 has held that stern action should initiated within a period of one month from “today” (date order) against persons who admittedly undertook construction of 116 roads on forest land without valid permission. Of these, 141 roads were constructed by the forest department and 75 by the PWD.
The court held that it was necessary to issue notification under Section 68 of the Indian Forest Act dealing with illicit felling and hoped that stern action would follow forthwith. The court also constituted a committee which would submit status report of action taken every three months.
Finally, the high court held respondent No 1, pradhan of Gram Panchyat Mandal, guilty of committing contempt of court. Handing down a historic and unprecedented judgment by not imposing fine on him, he was instead directed to grow and nurse at least 500 plants of deodar on the land to be provided by the forest department under the supervision of DFO concerned for a period of five years.
The high court exonerated the respondent No 2, DFO with a warning to be careful in future. He had invited tenders for felling of green trees which is totally banned in the state. Tenders had subsequently been cancelled. Anxiety and panic has gripped the employees of forest, revenue and development departments who illegally issued NOCs, the power of doing so was vested only with the government of India under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
A deputation of defaulters had also met the chief minister at Karsog during his recent visit there and prayed for taking a lenient view of the matter. Apparently, the Chief Minister seemed bound by his limitations over the verdict of the high court and he could not go beyond expressing his sympathy with the persons involved in the cases of illicit felling of trees without mandatory permission.