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Fingers point at forest dept. in tree-felling case

Senior officials failed to flag Revenue orders’ illegality, possibility of underhanded practices was ignored

With the illegal felling of centuries-old rosewood trees in Wayanad triggering a political stir in the State, questions are being raised on the Forest Department’s ‘silence’ when the Revenue Department issued orders permitting felling of trees in ‘patta’ lands granted to cultivators.

Government sources told The Hindu that senior Forest officials had failed to express reservations about these orders’ illegality. Besides, the higher-ups did not caution the field officers about the underhanded practices likely to happen in the guise of these orders. Also, the field officers had been lax in seeking clarifications on the Revenue orders that grossly infringed the Kerala Land Assignment Rules, 1964; the Kerala Land Assignment Amendment Rules, 2017, the Kerala Preservation of Trees Act, 1986 and the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non Forest Areas Act 2005.

Sources said the Forest Department had issued permission for cutting trees and had also accepted the declaration by landowners even when the Revenue orders had mentioned that no permission was required.

Besides, the Vigilance and intelligence wing attached to the Department of Forests and Wildlife kept quiet though its officials were empowered to act even before an offence was committed. Field officers of the Vigilance wing were equally responsible for prevention of offences, they said.

Ownership confusion

A highly placed government source said the trees on the ‘patta’ land belonged to the Revenue Department and officials could take legal action under the Land Conservancy Act 1957 and register a complaint with the police. But now, the Forest Department was claiming ownership of these trees. In fact, the Forest Department had created some confusion between Land Assignment ‘patta’ (revenue land, where only the government can cut the trees) and Land Tribunal ‘patta’ (land that once belonged to landlords, where the landowners now own the trees and can cut them) issued under the Land Reforms Act, 1963 and its Rules framed in 1970. From Thiruvananthapuram to Thrissur, forest occupancy prior to January 1, 1977, had been regularised and ‘patta’ had been issued under the Land Assignment Special Rules, 1993. Hence, only government has the right to cut the trees and the cultivators were not apprised of the fact properly.

Court’s scrutiny

The confiscation of timber from ‘patta’ land under Kerala Forest Act would not stand the scrutiny of court. This was because, Section 27 of the Act stated that confiscation of the timber could be done only when trees were felled on forestland.

As such, it also raised another question on booking cases against cultivators when Forest Department officials gave permission for cutting trees and accepted declarations from them.

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