On August 20, a Supreme Court bench said it was “surprised” to learn that Punjab had spent Rs 86 lakh, out of funds meant for compensatory afforestation, to pay lawyers and asked the Centre to verify if “misuse” of funds had taken place.
Present in the court was one of the recipients of these funds — advocate Annam D N Rao, the apex court’s amicus curiae who, ironically, has advised the court on how these funds should be used.
He’s been playing that role since 2008 in the Godavarman case under which matters related to the country’s forest policy, including compensatory afforestation, are taken up. An amicus curiae – literally, a friend of the court – is chosen to assist the court with impartial legal advice.
Between July 2016 and May 2017, advocate Rao — when he was the SC amicus curiae — represented the Punjab forest department before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to defend the state’s decision to cut down trees. In May 2016, the NGT had barred felling of trees in the state without its permission. In 2016, Rao also appeared before the Supreme Court in a contempt case, once again defending the Punjab forest department.
Records reviewed by The Indian Express show that Rao billed Punjab at least Rs 53.3 lakh for his legal services and the payment was made from the state CAMPA account — funds under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority.
In 17 instructions sent to a Chandigarh branch of the State Bank of India between July 2016 and May 2017, the office of Punjab’s principal chief conservator of forest sought transfer of Rs 47.97 lakh (excluding 10% TDS of Rs 5,33,000) from the state’s CAMPA account to Rao’s account in the Supreme Court branch of the UCO Bank.
The payments were made against 45 invoices – three marked SC and 42 NGT – raised by Rao and all 17 payment instructions were copied to his Supreme Court address.
Asked about these payments, Rao told The Indian Express: “I had appeared for the government of Punjab before the NGT and the Supreme Court of India. I am not aware as to whether the fees were paid from the CAMPA funds. I was concerned with only sending my memos.”
Told that all payment instructions copied to him by the state over nine months carried funds transfer details from the Punjab CAMPA account, Rao said: “I don’t know. I haven’t seen or received any.”
On August 20, Rao was assisting the bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur when Justice Deepak Gupta flagged reports on the alleged misuse of Punjab CAMPA funds based on documents obtained under the RTI Act by Dr Amandeep Aggarwal who had moved the NGT in 2016 against Punjab’s decision to cut thousands of trees for road projects. Rao was fighting this case for the Punjab forest department.
Asked if he had told the bench about his personal involvement in the matter, Rao told The Indian Express: “I was at the court when the CAMPA matter was taken up. That time itself I informed the Court that I had appeared for the Punjab government in a couple of cases. I have to verify where the fees had come from. It is for the Punjab government to explain from where the payment of fees was made and why.”
When contacted, Punjab’s principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) Jitender Sharma said: “I can’t comment on individual cases. This happened before my tenure and we have already provided the details to the Union Ministry of Environment in the past. In view of the SC’s instruction, we will do what the ministry requires us to.”
Since the late-1990s, funds for compensatory afforestation are collected from developers in lieu of forest land diverted for projects. In 2002, the Supreme Court sought a common Compensatory Afforestation Fund. Due to the delay in forming the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), the apex court in 2006 decided that an ad hoc CAMPA would centrally pool such funds collected by the states.
In the absence of a permanent institutional mechanism for utilisation of funds, huge unspent amounts continued to accumulate in the ad hoc CAMPA. In 2016, Parliament passed the Compensatory Afforestation Funds Act but the rules were notified only earlier this month.
In fact, it was amicus curiae Rao who, in December 2017, asked the apex court to restrain the government from transferring anything out of the Rs 50,488 crore corpus until rules were drafted under the CAMPA Act. On several occasions this year, the apex court has pulled up the Centre and states such as Odissa for diverting CAMPA funds for building roads, schools.