Fayyaz in this investigative report finds the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) is also the Departmental Vigilance Officer (DVO)
(Mr. Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, 48, was born in Bodina, Budgam, and received his primary and secondary education in Budgam and later at Amar Singh College, Srinagar. He completed his Master’s degree in Kashmiri language and literature from the University of Kashmir in 1987. He is the Srinagar bureau chief of Jammu & Kashmir’s largest-circulated newspaper, Daily Excelsior. He is also a filmmaker and currently making a film on Kashmir’s top pilgrim tourism destination of Chrar-e-Sharief, and about Sheikh-ul-Alam Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani, also known as Nund Rishi.)
In Governor’s rule, loot of forest continues under ‘Minister’s desire’
SRINAGAR: In hours of getting back the prestigious Forest portfolio from then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on January 1, 2008, Qazi Mohammad Afzal ordered a raid by Forest Protection Force (FPF) on compartment No: 66-B of Tangmarg in Gogaldara area of Pir Panjal Division. Qazi ordered the raid as he was flooded with complaints that a smuggler-official gang, headed by incharge Range Officer (RO) Gulmarg, Ishtiaq Ahmed Matoo, and Forester Feroz Ahmed Malik, had got hundreds of green Deodar and Kail trees felled in Gulmarg Range and smuggled it out to Srinagar and Pattan areas.
Even as information regarding the FPF raid seemed to have been leaked to the timber smugglers, the FPF team, headed by Deputy Director Gama Unit K-01 Srinagar Abdul Ahad Lone, found 14 freshly felled massive trees in compartment No: 66-B alone. Valued at around Rs 25 Lakh, 1107 cft of Deodar and 322 cft of Kail was found to have been felled in just one day. According to DD FPF’s letter No: 841/FPF/comp TT/K-01 Dated 4-01-2008, addressed to Joint Director FPF Kashmir Division, 792 cft of timber (Deodar 636 cft, Kail 156 cft) was seized on the spot. Rest of the 1429 cft, i.e. 237 cft, had already been removed and smuggled out of the area.
The FPF team did not only find the entire Forest Range and Block staff absent from duty but also observed that the officials, frantically engaged in removing the illegally felled timber, had also criminally kept the brand hammer in custody of some local helpers of the timber smugglers.
Working on Minister’s orders, coupled with communications from FPF, then Commissioner/Secretary Forest, Atul Duloo, ordered a thorough inquiry. According to Government Order No: 37-FST of 2008 Dated 20-01-2008, two-man commission of inquiry, comprising Project Coordinator North Jhelum Project Manzoor Ahmed Tak and DFO Urban Forestry, Abdul Rasheed Kakroo, were supposed to complete the investigation and submit a report to the Government within 30 days. One hundred and fifty-eight days on, the report is nowhere, making a mockery of the orders issued by Forest Department.
Under Minister’s verbal orders, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), Irshad Ahmed Khan, ordered immediate suspension of the incharge RO (Ishtiaq Matoo) and Forester (Feroz Malik), pending inquiry against them both. Their replacement and reverting the “incharge” RO to his original rank of Forester was still not ordered.
In just two weeks of his joining in the most sensitive Pir Panjal Division, DFO Javed Andrabi escorted both the tainted officials to the offices of Minister and PCCF. He pleaded that both of the accused were “innocent”. In a few days, PCCF Irshad Khan issued another order and reinstated both the tainted officials. He, however, recorded in the order that the officials were being reinstated “as desired by honourable Forest Minister”.
Meaningfully, both Matoo and Malik are residents of Gulmarg Range and have been operating in their neighborhoods for several years. And, more interestingly, Matoo’s predecessor, Munshi Iqbal, had also been identically posted in his residential range of Gulmarg, found involved in massive felling of green trees and smuggling of timber to Srinagar and Pattan areas, placed under suspension and finally reinstated with honour. With additional honour, Munshi was sponsored for a training course in Dehradoon.
Immediately after resuming “duties” in Gulmarg Range, Matoo and Malik, with overt and covert support from DFO PP Division and other senior officials of Forest Department, resorted to felling of green conifer trees in the ecologically important Gogaldara-Gulmarg belt. Massive damage has been caused in compartment Nos 65, 66-A, 66-B, Badarkote and Pehjan in the last six months. In his SOS on 20-02-2008, JD FPF Kashmir has written to CF Srinagar: “The area in question is of great importance due to the massive tourist transit and as far as the beauty with respect to Forests is concerned. The damage to the green gold and negligence of duty by the Forest field staff is just a mockery to all those signboards seen all over the area boosting protection, beauty and sincerity towards the forest”.
More interestingly, the dubiously reinstated RO Gulmarg, Matoo intercepted a truckload of the seized timber from FPF staff, waylaid it to DFO’s office in Budgam, kept it in illegal custody and finally released it after a week. There is no record or order of seizure or release from DFO PP Division. DD FPF Abdul Ahad Lone revealed that, after his reinstatement , Matoo snatched away another quantity of timber that had been seized by FPF and was being shifted to Gama Unit Srinagar for safe custody. “We complained the matter to higher authorities who forced SHO concerned to act. It was a Police Inspector who came to our rescue and got the vehicle and its timber released from Matoo’s custody” , Lone said.
Lone complained that a network of timber smugglers and Forest officials was enjoying a field day and the FPF had been rendered “totally ineffective”. Residents of village Aboora insisted that placing Forest officials and reinstating them dubiously had become a “known business of senior officers and politicians”. They claimed that all from Munshi to Matoo to Malik had been not only reinstated but also given prize postings in their residential areas after they “did the needful”. According to them, booty of over Rs 5 Lakh was extorted from Matoo and Malik alone.
Asked why the 2-member inquiry had not submitted the report it was supposed to provide to the Government in 30 days in the last 158 days, CF level officer Manzoor Ahmed Tak said that it was ready and would be submitted “within 2-3 days”. To a question over prima facie findings, Tak said it had been established during investigation that considerable damage had been caused to Gogaldara forests “before, during and after” the two officials’ suspension and reinstatement. He confirmed that timber smuggling activity was unabated in the area.
Asked how Matoo and Malik had been reinstated, pending inquiry, in days of their suspension, PCCF Irshad Khan pleaded that he had issued the order of reinstatement “under pressure” from then Forest Minister Qazi Mohammad Afzal. “We are anyway setting it all right in a couple of days”, Khan asserted. Asked for his reaction to the PCCF’s averment—read accusation—, Qazi told EXCELSIOR: “I was approached and told by Forest officers that both the suspended officials were innocent. I said if it is so, let they be reinstated”.
And, lastly ironically, DFO PP Division is also enjoying the designation of “Departmental Vigilance Officer” (DVO) who is supposed to keep an eye on the corrupt practices of all Government officials and provide a helping hand to State Vigilance Organisation in Budgam district!