The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has rebuked the Punjab government for appointing Additional Chief Secretary-cum-Financial Commissioner Development Viswajeet Khanna as the new inquiry officer in the case of alleged illegal felling of 24,777 trees along the Bist Doab Canal (BDC) in 2016-17.
On January 27, the Punjab government had informed NGT about Khanna’s appointment as inqury officer in the case. In its January 28 report ‘Additional chief secy to probe illegal felling, was forest secy when trees were cut’, The Indian Express had highlighted that Khanna was posted as Punjab’s Financial Commissioner (Forest) and Principal Secretary during the period when permissions were granted to fell the trees for the canal project.
Coming down heavily on the Punjab government, the NGT was also critical of the fact that IFS Kuldip Kumar, who was posted as Punjab’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Head of Forest Force (HOFF), when the trees were allegedly felled in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, continues in the same post, the highest in the state forest department.
The Bist Doab Canal passes through Nawanshahr (SBS Nagar), Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Ropar districts. Thousands of trees were allegedly illegally felled to facilitate cement lining of canal by the irrigation department.
In its latest order passed Monday (a copy of which was made available Tuesday), the tribunal, calling it a “step further to circumvent the order of the tribunal and lacking sincerity to comply with directions given” and “gross failure to comply with the order”, has now summoned the Punjab chief secretary on February 24 to “explain deliberate non-compliance of the order…”
In its orders dated August 16, 2018, the NGT had ordered the Punjab government to get the case investigated thoroughly by an officer not below the rank of Additional Chief Secretary to affix responsibility upon officers who were responsible for violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and to take strict action in accordance with law.
In the same order, the tribunal had stated that the PCCF (a post held by IFS Kuldip Kumar at the time as well as at present) and a divisional forest officer had deliberately ignored the fact that the trees stood in an area demarcated as ‘protected forest’ and it was a “willful violation” of the Forest Conservation Act.
Complying with NGT orders dated August 16, 2018 and a related Supreme Court order dated January 11, 2019, the Punjab government had after eight months appointed then additional chief secretary cum financial commissioner (taxation) MP Singh as inquiry officer only on September 2, 2019. However, he too retired without completing the inquiry.
In its latest order, the NGT said, “Even after the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in January 2019…chief secretary, State of Punjab had issued an order only on 2.09.2019…appointed Mr M P Singh as inquiry officer…to fix the responsibility of the officers…he did not complete the inquiry within two months…and ultimately on 31.12. 2019 he retired. In the entire period from August, 2018 to December, 2019, no progress was made in respect of holding an inquiry as per the order of the tribunal…”
On Khanna’s January appointment as the new inquiry officer, the NGT said, “…It is noteworthy to mention here that at that time of violation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, because of cutting of trees along the Bist Doab Canal, Vishwajeet Khanna was the secretary cum financial commissioner, Forest. In other words, the steps taken…has not only delayed the matter but an attempt has been made to circumvent the order passed on 16.08.2018 by appointing an officer to investigate the case who at the time was secretary in-charge of the forest department…responsible for upholding the provisions of Forest Conservation Act at state government level….”
“….appointment of same officer who was secretary in-charge of forest department as inquiry officer is a step further to circumvent the order…and lacking sincerity to comply with directions given by us…The matter was of a serious nature as the DFO and PCCF had…willfully violated the provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and permission was granted to fell the trees…,” said the latest order.
“We have been informed…that the present PCCF (HoFF) Punjab Kuldeep Kumar is the same gentleman who was PCCF Punjab (HoFF) at the time when the violation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 had taken place…,’ it further said.
“…the respondents (Punjab government) have proceeded with to circumvent the order of the tribunal…we prima facie of the view that there has been gross failure to comply with the order of 16.08.2018…,” the order said.
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