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Revenue officials in timber scam

Bhubaneswar, Dec. 3: The illegal diversion of forest land by a section of revenue department officials in Orissa could soon wipe out hundreds of acres of forest from the state.

Orissa has 58,135 square km of forest area under government control. While the forest department controls 26,349 square km of the forest area, the rest, comprising nearly 55 per cent, is under the supervision of the revenue department.

A report of the Forest Survey of India has exposed the rapid loss of forest cover in the state over the past decade.

Investigations have revealed that state revenue officials are involved in the illegal diversion of forest land and the government has lost timber worth thousands of crores of rupees from the forests. “This loss of forest cover is surprising since the state had banned felling of trees long ago,” said a senior forest department official.

The state has 2,673 square km of dense forest, 20,745 square km of open forest and a little over 215 square km of mangroves.

As per Forest Conservation Act, 1980, it is illegal to divert any forest land without clearance from the Centre.

“Revenue officials are definitely involved in this huge racket. By conniving with the timber traders, the revenue officials have consistently ignored the provisions of this law and diverted a lot of forest area by issuing illegal pattas or leased deeds,” alleged Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of Wildlife Society of Orissa (WSO).

The WSO had filed a public interest litigation in the Orissa High Court two years ago demanding a ban on the misuse of the timber permit.

The high court, in its interim order passed in December 2000, banned the issue of timber transit permits from all private lands whose titles had been acquired after 1980, thereby saving millions of trees from the axe for the past two years.

However, environmentalists fear that if things continue at the current rate, the forests controlled by the revenue department will soon be denuded.

In 1986-87, the Rakas reserve forest in Angul forest division was diverted by the land settlement officer of Dhenkanal district without getting the mandatory clearance from the Centre. During settlement operations in Talcher, the revenue department split the reserve forest into three revenue villages of Alahad Nagar, Hensamul and Rakas in a clear violation of the law. Several other revenue officials also issued leases and pattas of forest land for agriculture, mining and quarrying which contain timber growth. The lease deeds routinely bear a false report that “no timber growth exists on the demarcated land”.

In a bid to control the menace, the government has proposed to declare nearly 12,000 square km of the 31,785 square km under the revenue department as “reserved forest” under the Indian Forest Act, 1972. However, the plan, too, has been hanging fire for some time now. Environmentalists allege that the revenue department is reluctant to hand over the control of these forests to the forest department as then the timber scam would come to light.

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