For the first time in recallable past, the Himachal Pradesh High Court has imposed a fine of Rs 34 lakh on 16 forest officials, including two Conservators of Forests, for illicit felling of 416 trees in the Shimla forest range between 2015 and 2018.
Holding that the officials responsible for the loss of 100-year-old trees have to be put to task, the court gave them an opportunity to appear before it on May 27, the next date of hearing, if they want themselves to be heard before making the recovery and entry of the lapse in their service record.
The orders were passed by a division bench comprising Chief Justice L. Narayana Swamy and Justice Anoop Chitkara on a letter taken up suo moto as public interest litigation (PIL) for conducting a fair and impartial investigation into the illegal felling of trees in the Koti forest range in Shimla district.
Miffed over the non-compliance of its directions on illicit felling of trees, the high court had earlier directed the Principal Secretary (Forests) and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests to be present in the court on April 20.
In the last hearing, the bench had directed the Principal Secretary for computation of recovery of Rs 34,68,233 from 16 officials, including two Conservators of Forests, two Divisional Forest Officers, three Assistant Conservators of Forests, two Range Forest Officers, six Block Officers and one Forest Guard.
During the hearing, it was brought to the notice of the court by amicus curiae B.C. Negi that it was the mandatory duty on the part of the Range Officer, the Assistant Conservator, the Divisional Forest Officer and the Deputy Conservator to carry out field inspection and detect any felling.
He apprised the court that instead of initiating action against the high-ranked officers, action was taken only against the low-rank officials.
Advocate General Ashok Sharma said that three officers failed to bring the illegal felling into the notice of their superiors, therefore action was initiated against them.
He said Bhoop Ram, who is a licensee of a stone crusher, had illegally cut 416 trees, the cost of which is Rs 34,68,233. Out of this, almost the entire amount has been recovered and only approximately Rs 4 lakh is to be recovered.
The court observed that the state must have recovered the cost of timber, but the value of trees cannot be evaluated as trees “are oxygen producers and de-carbonisers”.
“The officers who are responsible for this loss of trees of 100 years of age have to be put to task. This kind of illegal and illicit felling of trees cannot be compensated in any manner,” observed the bench.
It also observed that the order of the Department of Forest Farming and Conservation dated May 4, 1984, confers duty on the part of the officer to visit the forest and it should have been treated as a mandatory duty.
“When a person has an important duty to perform, he is bound to perform that duty; and if he neglects or refuses to do so, and an individual in consequence sustains injury, that lays the foundation for action to recover damages by way of compensation.
“The duty is cast upon the officer which is an administrative duty and which is not discretionary and failure on the part of the officer to perform the duty is misfeasance, which means a failure to do something when there is a legal duty to do, especially by a person in authority,” the bench said.
The judges observed that the responsibility of felling of trees has to be fixed, from the Forest Guard up to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, as all these officers are responsible for inaction, in terms of mandatory field instructions and field touring for the purpose of physical verification and there is dereliction of duties on their part. IANS