The accused in the case misused a government order to cut trees illegally.

Felled rosewood tree in Wayanad
news Environment Thursday, June 17, 2021 - 17:27

Ever since the Wayanad Muttil tree felling and rosewood smuggling case came to light, all fingers are pointing at a government circular and an order that came in 2020. Opposition leaders, activists and legal experts pointed out that the orders from the Revenue Department on relaxing certain rules for tree felling were problematic — and these orders ultimately led to the illegal cutting of trees by the timber mafia.

The government orders

In March 2020, the Kerala Revenue Principal Secretary V Venu issued a circular clarifying that all reserved trees, except for sandalwood trees, are allowed to be chopped down by the owners of patta (private) land. These were government revenue lands given to people before the 1950s and before the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963.

Until this order was passed, as per law people were not allowed to cut nine types of ‘reserved’ trees, including sandalwood, teak, rosewood, Irul, Thempaavu, Kampakam, Chadachi, Chandana Vembu and Vellakil, under the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-forest areas (Amendment) Act, 2007. There was a provision, in certain lands, where except four trees — teak, rosewood, sandalwood and ebony — farmers could own the other trees by paying the cost of the tree at the time of land assignment. In certain revenue lands, such trees except these four could be cut by the owner. But the March 2020 order relaxed all those rules.

Several cases were filed before the Kerala High Court, following which the order was stayed by the HC. The interim stay was ordered on a public interest litigation filed by One Earth One Life, an NGO in Thrissur.

The second order

The second order dated October 24, 2020, from A Jayathilak, Principal Secretary Revenue, was almost equivalent to the first one. The order basically permitted farmers to cut trees except sandalwood, that they planted themselves, or that grown by its own, after the land assignment.

"In the assigned patta land, trees which grow on their own after assignment, reserved trees (not the protected category but reserved by farmers by giving money at the time of assignment) except sandalwood trees are owned by farmers. They can cut them without taking any permission. Strict action will be taken against any officials who object to the cutting of these trees," said the order. It also said this was a clarification owing to ambiguities in the previous order issued in March 2020.

Misuse of the order, which is already illegal

Kerala Forest Minister AK Saseendran had admitted that the accused might have misused this order to cut the trees illegally. PT Thomas, the Congress MLA who moved a no-confidence motion in the Assembly over the issue, had said that all the rosewood trees that were cut were at least a century old.

"What happened in Muttil was misuse of the Revenue Department order. The order permits only cutting of trees which were planted, grew on their own, or were reserved by farmers. These trees don't come in that category. Above all, the order itself is illegal. Its (GO on October 2020) paragraph 5 mentions that the 2005 promotion of tree growth act, permits cutting of tree except sandalwood, but that provision excludes the patta land in the act (which was falsely quoted in the order)," environmentalist and lawyer Harish Vasudevan told TNM.

With this order of October 2020, the timber mafia easily could mislead the farmers claiming that the cutting of trees is legal.

"To tribals, they gave a paltry amount and to other farmers they gave a little more and easily started cutting trees from November 2020, the very month after the order was passed. This was a planned bid," Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi NGO President N Badusha said.

"For a few tribal families in Malangara tribal settlement, they just gave around Rs 38000 for the wood that cost Rs 20 lakh. These poor tribals were not aware of the real cost. We have learnt that these accused directly visited them to fix the rates," he added.

He said that the tree felling continued for about three months until January. In the beginning, nobody actually knew what was happening, but later, a lot of complaints were reaching the district administration and forest officials. In the month of January, the South Wayanad District Forest Officer sought a legal opinion from the district public prosecutor on this.

"Public prosecutor in Wayanad advocate Joseph Mathew had given the legal opinion that the order is illegal and erroneous. In the legal opinion report, it was mentioned that the GO violated the purpose of Section 4 of Kerala Preservation of Trees Act 1986 (KPT Act), which prevents causing harm to trees without permission of authorised officers (from forest department)," Badusha added.

Order withdrawn

On February 2, 2020 the government order was withdrawn. They said, “Since there are cases in High Court over this order, description of the term 'tree' in 1994 Kerala Preservation of Tree Act  and 'specified tree' term in The Kerala Promotion of Tree growth in non forest areas Act, has variations with the 1964 land rules and also it also noticed by the government that some cut trees in the land by misinterpreting the order..."

But by then many trees were already cut.

There were reports that AK Saseendran, then Wayanad MLA, in February 2020 had sent a request to the Chief Minister seeking special permission to cut trees from patta land. The Chief Minister had forwarded the request on Feb 19, 2020  to principal secretary of revenue department and additional chief secretary of forest department to look into the matter.

Though Saseendran had said that he was just forwarding a request from the Wayanad District Revenue Patta Land Protection Samiti, activists claim that it is suspicious. “It can be doubted that the first order which came in March, 11 2020, came after this request was sent. In June the same year, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests had sent a letter to the government that the order was against Cabinet decisions, and later, the High Court stayed it. But all these have been hidden in the next order issued in October," Harish Vasudevan pointed out.

Some forest officials stood firm

After cutting loads of wood, the accused tried to move them outside Wayanad; they filed 14 applications with Meppadi forest range officer Sameer MK, seeking permission in the months of December and January. He rejected them; it was how the whole issue came to light. It was this officer who seized two loads of timber smuggled by the accused Roji Augustine to a mill in Ernakulam. a report filed by Vinod Kumar DK, chief conservator of forest, Kannur, states that there were attempts to frame Sameer within the department for opposing the tree smuggling move.

The report also stated that apart from Meppadi Range Forest Officer, South Wayanad Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) also wrote multiple times to the revenue department seeking clarity in trees felled in Muttil, in February 2020. Meppadi RO Sameer had written thrice to Vythiri Tahsildar in  January 2021 seeking clarity on the status of trees that were felled. There was no response to any of these, says the report.

It was also learnt that the DFO P Renjith Kumar had also written to Tahsildar and district collector, as the accused approached him directly after the RO rejected their application.

The accused Roji had leveled allegations against Renjith Kumar as well as  Kozhikode Flying Squad DFO P Dhanesh Kumar on live TV on June 10, that they took bribes from him. But the officers deny that and even activists consider it as a threat from the accused.

In the first week of June, Forest Minister AK Saseendran said in the Kerala Assembly that 102 rosewood trees, that cost around Rs 10 crore, were cut illegally in the Muttil South village of Wayanad district. But some of the activists in the district allege that more than 102 trees were felled. Around 41 complaints were registered related to this case. More than 60 people were booked, among whom a majority are poor farmers from the rural village of Wayanad. Fourteen among them are people from tribal communities. Two persons — Roji Augustine and his brother Anto Augustine, are the main accused in the government.

Probe

A joint investigation by the Forest, Crime Branch and Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB), was ordered by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan into the case. Also a special investigation team headed by Additional Director General of Police Sreejith has started the probe, in the illegal tree felling cases across state. There were reports from Thrissur, Pathanamthitta and Idukki that trees were cut illegally.

Harish Vasudevan said that the government should initiate high level enquiry on the misinterpretation of the statutory provisions, issuing government orders and violation of Acts to facilitate illegal felling.

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