The three senior most Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers in Punjab are involved in an open, no holds barred attack on each other as two of them fight for the top post of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Head of Forest Force (PCCF, HOFF) amid allegations and counter allegations over illegal felling of 24,777 trees for Bist Doab Canal (BDC) project in 2016-17.
At the heart of the deep mess that Punjab forest department finds itself currently in, are PCCF Jitendra Sharma (1984 batch), PCCF Kuldip Kumar (1984 batch) and CCF Harsh Kumar (1985 batch). They are three senior most IFS officers, as per the seniority list on the website of Department of Forests and Wildlife Preservation. Of them, Kuldip Kumar and Sharma have taken their fight for the post of PCCF, (HOFF) to Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT).
In the latest, Chief Conservator of Forest (Hills) Harsh Kumar, who has at least three chargesheets issued against him by the government, has pulled out his 2018 enquiry report into alleged illegal felling of trees for BDC project and shot off a letter to Punjab chief secretary demanding action against Sharma, his senior.
Sharma, on the other hand, has moved an appeal in the CAT challenging government order posting Kuldip Kumar as PCCF (HOFF) and him as Managing Director, Punjab State Forest Development Corporation Limited (PSFDC). Sharma has claimed that he was senior to Kuldip Kumar. CAT recently passed an order on his appeal.
BDC project: Officers blame each other
The Bist Doab Canal passes through Nawanshahr (SBS Nagar), Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Ropar districts and at least 24,777 trees were allegedly illegally felled to facilitate cement lining of canal by the irrigation department.
While Harsh Kumar alleges that Sharma was ‘involved’ in the illegal felling of trees, the latter says that according to his “fact-finding report and record analysis”, it was Kuldip Kumar, who was then posted as PCCF (HOFF) and responsible for granting permission to axe trees.
The NGT, in an order dated August 16, 2018 in the BDC case, had said that PCCF and a divisional forest officer had deliberately ignored the fact that the trees stood in the area demarcated as protected forest and it was a willful violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1980.
“The PCCF had chosen to overlook the objections of Conservator of Forest, Shiwalik Circle, Hoshiarpur who clearly stated that felling of trees in area in question will attract the provisions of FCA and therefore prior approval of MoEF is required. We hold that there has been willful violation of FCA in granting permission to fell huge number of (24,777) trees without following procedures laid down under the provisions of FCA,” the NGT order reads.
The Green Tribunal also ordered that Punjab government should get entire case investigated “thoroughly” from an officer not below the rank of Additional chief secretary and “take strict action”.
The Punjab government Monday informed the NGT that Additional Chief Secretary-cum-Financial Commissioner Development Viswajeet Khanna has been appointed as the inquiry officer and has been directed to complete the probe in two months.
After the Punjab government was once again rapped by the NGT on January 10 for failing to investigate the role of its forest officials in the alleged illegal felling of the trees for upgradation project of Bist Doab Canal in 2016-17; It issued fresh orders to Punjab chief secretary to file a personal affidavit. Now Harsh Kumar has pulled out his enquiry report dated May 5, 2018 and has written to the chief secretary demanding action against “officers involved”, including Sharma.
The letter dated January 15 (copy with The Indian Express), reads: ‘As per the NGT judgement passed in the case of Nishant Alag vs State of Punjab, the undersigned had done inquiry into illegal cutting of 25,000 trees. Prima facie following officers have been found to be involved: Jitendra Sharma IFS; DV Ratna IFS; Anoop Upadhyay IFS and others…The report…is hereby sent to you for further action. They need to be proceeded departmentally under All India Service Discipline and Appeal Rules 1969”.
In his inquiry report on Sharma’s role, Kumar writes: “When it was realised that trees are not a part of Protected Forests notification of 1958, (the) then Secretary Forests VK Khanna, IAS took the decision to get these trees felled from PSFDC. Not only this, that time Managing Director (PSFDC) Jitendra Sharma was the part of this decision and even rate of these trees was reduced by 25 per cent so that forest corporation contractor could cut these trees as early as possible”.
Harsh Kumar himself isn’t new to controversies. It has been alleged that he permitted axing of trees in Jayanti Majri of Mohali despite an NGT ban. He was also alleged to have been involved in a sensitive file related to regularization of 30 wagers going missing from Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). It was also alleged that Harsh Kumar was involved in the illegal construction of Forest Hill Golf Resort at Karoran in Mohali and CBI had conducted raids at his residence and other officers way back in 2006. Later, Punjab and Haryana High Court had also stayed his promotion till he wasn’t cleared of all charges.
He admits that four chargesheets had been issued against him. “But my name has been cleared in all cases after proper inquiries including those by central government. My question is that why this report, in Bist Doab Canal mass tree felling case, has remained buried for 20 months now despite NGT rap. Three IFS officers, including Sharma, have been found involved and no action was taken,” Harsh Kumar said.
Denying the allegations against him as “bundle of lies”, Sharma said that he took over as MD (PSFDC) only in September 2016 and till then it was Kuldip Kumar who was posted as PCCF (HOFF)-cum-MD (PSFDC) and hence gave all permissions for felling the trees along Bist Doab Canal. “I have already submitted all these facts in a fresh fact finding report and record analysis submitted in 2019 to additional chief secretary forests and additional chief secretary-cum-financial commissioner taxation MP Singh who was appointed as enquiry officer in case after NGT orders. NGT has already said in its judgement on August 16, 2018 that it was a willful violation of Forest Conservation Act (FCA) by PCCF and trees felled were on forest land,” Sharma said.
Sharma was posted as PCCF (HOFF) in August 2017 replacing Kuldip Kumar after he had moved representation to government that his junior being given the post was violation of rules when he was available to serve the post. “In September 2019, when I submitted the fresh fact finding report in this case after being asked for it, I was still functioning as PCCF (HOFF) because CAT had stayed government’s orders dated August 8, 2019 again transferring me as MD of PSFDC and posting Kuldip Kumar as PCCF (HOFF). It was again violation of rules and I filed an appeal in CAT again,” he says.
After Sharma was posted as PCCF (HOFF) in August 2017, Kuldip Kumar was made PCCF (Wildlife). Now that Kuldip Kumar has again been posted as PCCF (HOFF), there is no clarity on who is holding the post of PCCF (Wildlife). “Since there are no fresh orders, I am handling wildlife too,” claims Kuldip Kumar.
Fight for the top post
After Sharma moved CAT against Punjab government’s order of August 9, 2019 posting Kuldip Kumar as PCCF (HOFF), the Tribunal in its order on January 8 this year directed Punjab government to “consider claim of the applicant (Sharma) vis-a-vis 3rd respondent (Kuldip Kumar) in context of posting on the post of HOFF and pass a fresh order within three weeks”.
Sharma, meanwhile, says that there is no question of him joining as MD, PSFDC. “I am awaiting for the next instructions from the government on account of CAT order. I am unaware about my current designation. I am an IFS officer with PCCF rank and was working as PCCF, HOFF but suddenly I was transferred as MD, PSFDC. My batchmate Kuldip Kumar, who is junior to me in seniority list, has been posted as PCCF, HOFF. But I challenged that order and now fresh instructions from government are awaited on the recent CAT order. If I join as MD, PSFDC that too will be violation of CAT order,” he says.
Kuldip Kumar meanwhile says that he is “working on the post of PCCF (HOFF) as per government orders. “The CAT order clearly says that it has vacated stay on previous order. So I am working where I should,” he says.
Despite repeated attempts, Punjab forest minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot wasn’t available for comments.
The War of words among three top IFS officers continues
PCCF, 1984 batch IFS
Despite me and Jitendra Sharma being batchmates and good friends, things have been messed up just to get the top post. He (Sharma) has been defaming me in BDC case as if I chopped those 24,777 trees with my own hands. He dragged my name into it just because I was then posted as PCCF (HOFF) against his liking. That project was a social cause, thousands of farmers benefited from it. CAT has vacated stay on my posting as PCCF (HOFF) and I am working where I should.”
CCF, 1985 batch IFS
Four chargesheets were issued against me and I was implicated in false case of permitting tree felling in Mohali but enquiry found that no trees were felled. All other allegations against me, including that of file going missing from the CMO, were found false after proper enquiries but higher-ups need to answer that why no action has been taken on my enquiry finding Jitendra Sharma’s involvement in Bist Doab Canal tree felling case. Why no high level enquiry against him too?”
PCCF, 1984 batch IFS
Harsh Kumar has no locus standi to probe BDC tree felling case…but since he claimed to have found my involvement in his May 2018 report, I have already replied to the government. Since the government had asked for fact finding analysis from me too after NGT’s August 2018 order, I had put the facts on record. Since Kuldip Kumar was PCCF (HOFF)-cum-MD, PSFDC till September 2016, he gave permission to fell standing trees. I joined as MD only in September 2016… I am sorry if he (Kuldip) feels I have been defaming him…Being the senior most officer, it is my duty to maintain rule of law and save whatever greenery is left. Else they will chop and sell them too.”
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