Illegal tree felling case: NGT bench makes Punjab chief secy read orders in court

Divya Goyal

Vini Mahajan has been appointed the new enquiry officer in the case.

A National Green Tribunal bench Monday directed Punjab chief secretary Karan Avtar Singh to read out its previous orders - in the case of alleged illegal felling of 24,777 trees for Bist Doab Canal - in the courtroom and asked how the state government will comply with them given the situation that has been created.

The chief secretary personally attended the hearing in New Delhi after NGT, on February 10, issued orders summoning him to “give an explanation”.

Singh was accompanied by Punjab Advocate General Atul Nanda and together they tried to convince the Tribunal that Punjab government will comply with its orders.

The chief secretary read out the tribunal orders in the courtroom and informed the bench comprising Justice Raghuvendra S Rathore (judicial member) and Dr Satwayan Singh Garbyal (expert member) that now Punjab government has appointed Additional Chief Secretary (industries and commerce), Vini Mahajan as the new inquiry officer in the case. Mahajan will complete the case inquiry within 60 days and “affix responsibility for lapses and violations as directed by the NGT,” Singh informed the court.

She replaces Additional Chief Secretary-cum-Financial Commissioner Development Viswajeet Khanna.

In its orders dated February 10, the tribunal had rapped Punjab government for appointing Khanna as the enquiry officer in the case noting that he was posted as Punjab’s financial commissioner-cum-principal secretary (forest) when the trees were illegally cut and Forest Conservation Act was ‘willfully violated’.

“It is an attempt to circumvent NGT orders,” the tribunal had said in the orders. It had also rapped Punjab government for retaining senior IFS officer Kuldip Kumar as Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Head of Forest Force (PCCF, HoFF) noting that “he was the same gentleman who was PCCF Punjab (HoFF) at the time when the violation of Forest (Conservation) Act had taken place”.

Chief Secretary also informed the court that IFS Jitendra Sharma has been posted as PCCF (HoFF), in place of Kumar.

Saurabh Sharma, counsel for petitioner Nishant Kumar Alag said, “Punjab chief secretary has promised the court that the inquiry will be concluded within 60 days and officials responsible for illegal felling of 24,777 trees will be identified and action will be taken against them. Our petition has been disposed off with a liberty that if orders are still not complied with by Punjab government, we can approach NGT again”.

The Bist Doab Canal passes through Nawanshahr (SBS Nagar), Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Ropar districts and at least 24,777 trees were felled allegedly illegally in violation of Forest (Conservation) Act in 2016-17 during SAD-BJP regime, to facilitate cement lining of canal undertaken by irrigation department.

In its orders dated August 16, 2018, the NGT had ordered Punjab government to get the entire case investigated thoroughly by “an officer not below the rank of Additional Chief Secretary to affix the responsibility upon the officers who were responsible for violation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and to take strict action in accordance with law”.