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Loophole being exploited to illegally cut down trees in Kil Kotagiri

A whistle-blower has alleged that landowners are applying for permission to cut under the “dangerous” trees clause, and are cutting down trees that do not pose any risk as well

Illegal logging has become rampant in the ecologically-diverse region of Kil Kotagiri in the Nilgiris, with private patta holders capitalizing on a loophole that allows them to cut down “dangerous” trees without the permission of the Forest Department.

Speaking to The Hindu, a whistle-blower from Kil Kotagiri, who shared a recent cutting order issued by the Revenue Department for the cutting of nine jackfruit trees in Denad Village in Kil Kotagiri, highlighted how landowners are applying for permission to cut down young trees under the pretext of them being dangerous. “All of the trees for which the cutting orders have been issued are around 25-feet in height. Mature jackfruit trees can grow to double this size. How can a young tree be deemed to be in danger of falling?” wondered the local resident, who has documented the illegal felling of trees in the region for the last two years.

According to rules, trees in the Nilgiris can only be cut with the permission of the district committee for tree cutting. The chairman of the committee is the Nilgiris Collector. However, one loophole with the existing rules concerns trees that are deemed to be “dangerous” to human life and safety, whereby private land owners can approach the local Revenue Department, and apply to get a fixed number of trees removed. The owner can cite danger posed by the tree, such as it falling on houses or power lines, after which local Forest Department staff will be asked for their opinion before the approval is given.

“This delegates the decision-making to local Forest Department staff, who for a variety of reasons, can be easily swayed into giving permissions,” claimed the whistle-blower from Kil Kotagiri.

The rules also allow only for trees planted by the land owner to be cut down, and not trees that grow spontaneously.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a restoration ecologist and conservationist from the Nilgiris, said that it was extremely difficult to keep track of how many trees were being cut even if permissions are issued in accordance with established procedure. “The method being used to keep track of the number of trees cut, is to count the tree stumps left behind. However, earth-movers are used to remove the stumps entirely. If a person gets permission to cut trees, he can use that permit to cut many more than stipulated, and no one would be any the wiser,” he said. A more technology-driven, modern systems needs to be implemented to keep tabs on tree felling in the district. “Across the world, hyperspectral imaging and satellite monitoring is being used to keep tabs on illegal logging,” he said.

Officials from the Forest Department, when contacted, said that the issue had been brought to the attention of the district collector as well as the Forest Minister in a recent meeting, and the application procedures are being reviewed to ensure more transparency.

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