The National Green Tribunal has slapped a fine of Rs 15 lakh on a former sarpanch and the secretary of Taparwara panchayat in Nagaur district and directed the state government to initiate an inquiry against a district forest officer for illegally cutting and auctioning thousands of trees.
The order is a major victory for the villagers of Mori Khurd in Taparwara, who had filed the petition against their own former sarpanch and forest officials.
Underlining the immense value of green cover in arid Rajasthan, the NGT order-passed by judicial member Justice U D Salvi and expert member D K Agarwal-sought to make an example out of the incident by slapping a fine ten times the value of the trees cut.
The origins of Taparwara’s ‘green struggle’ lie in a 1982 agreement between the state forest department and the panchayat, under which 180 bighas of village were identified for plantation of 16,000 trees. The forest that grew as a result, was to be handed over to the panchayat, according to an agreement dated June 25, 1982.
However, in 2011, sarpanch Jugal Kishore allegedly auctioned 3,000 trees-weighing 750 quintals-to timber mafia for Rs 1,46,000.
The auction was disapproved by the panchayat samiti, Parbatsar, after an audit by the accounts department found it to be in contravention of the original agreement in June 2011.
“(The evidence is) sufficient to come to the conclusion that the land in question was shaved off its tree cover clearly and in contravention of the agreement between the gram panchayat Taparwada and the divisional forest officer, Parbatsar,” the NGT order dated July 10, 2015, said.
“Most of the lands in Rajasthan fall in arid region. No expert opinion is needed to understand the value of trees. Besides benefitting the locals in terms of greenery and income earned, it has far reaching consequences in arresting desertification of the arid region,” the order noted.
Invoking the “polluter pays” principle, the NGT ruled that the loss of tree cover had to be compensated by the former sarpanch and the secretary.
“In our considered opinion, such compensation not only should cover the cost of reforestation of the said gochar land but also be an exemplary one and therefore, it has to be quantified at 10 times the amount of sale process of Rs 1,46,000,” it said.
The NGT also flagged the role of the district forest officer in the matter, saying the official might have connived with the offenders.
“We have also noticed the apathy of district forest officer in not taking timely action when the trees were being cut. One may get a feeling that the concerned District Forest Officer, Nadwala connived at the unlawful act of cutting of the said trees,” it said.
The NGT ordered the Nagaur district collector to initiate proceedings against the former sarpanch and the secretary, while directing the chief administrative secretary, department of forests to launch a probe against the district forest officer.
The tribunal asked authorities to complete both actions within three months and sought a detailed report on them.
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