THE Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court severely rapped Principal Secretary (Forests) Vikas Kharge and Forest Force head Sarjan Bhagat Thursday for not following the court’s directive despite repeated reminders, before deciding to give them “one more chance to rectify their mistake”.
The two officials were summoned by the HC bench comprising Justice Bhushan Gavai and Justice Vinay Deshpande to vide an order dated July 7 when the last hearing of the matter regarding widening of the National Highway 7 to four lanes was heard. They were present in the court along with Chief Conservator of Forest T S K Reddy and Deputy Conservator of Forest (Nagpur) Mallikarjun.
The court was hearing a matter pertaining to the forest department not complying with the HC directive issued last year to undertake compensatory afforestation of 1.1 lakh trees in lieu of the over 30,000 trees felled on an NH7 stretch cutting through the Kanha-Pench tiger corridor to make it a four-lane one. The HC had issued contempt notices to the forest officials during the last hearing. It had also threatened to send them to jail.
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During the hearing Thursday, the court once again threatened to sentence them, frequently mentioning names of forest department rest houses in places such as Mogarkasa, Sillari and Ranidoh where the officials could be sent to serve the term. Justice Gavai lent a touch of humour while giving a severe tongue-lashing to the officials, asking if the rest houses had power supply. The query generated a hushed spell of giggle in the packed courtroom.
Government pleader Bharti Dangre too had to take the rap. She filed an affidavit by CCF Reddy during the morning session, delineating how the compensatory afforestation plan was worked out and the timeline followed. She said it would take about ten years to plant and maintain 1.1 lakh trees.
On this, Justice Gavai asked, “If the department could plant 2 crore saplings posing for selfies in one day, why should it take 10 years to plant the 1.10 lakh saplings. This court saved you from the National Green Tribunal that could have put you under arrest and would have confiscated all your properties for allowing tree-felling. This court paved the way for felling of trees for road-widening by setting aside the NGT order last year. Prior to that you were not allowing the felling and trying to pose as biggest caretakers of forests. Now, you say it would take ten years.”
Dangre said around 100 such compensatory afforestation cases came every year and were all treated together at meetings. Justice Gavai said, “Then the High Court should treat the expansion of NH7 also along with 100 such cases and not give it priority.”