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Thursday, June 8, 2023

AAP Govt clueless as Forest Dept. hit by top officials fighting for plum posts in Punjab 

The top officers of the Punjab Wildlife and Forest Department are at loggerheads, adversely impacting its functioning, while the AAP government seems utterly clueless about how to handle the mess.

The controversy revolves around the posting of the Chief Conservator of Forests (Hills) for which two Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers are fighting to stake their claim, with eight other officers joining in to support one of them, creating bad blood in the cadres. Orders issued by one group are being rejected by the other.

The office has under its charge the issue of licenses for eco-tourism and the main forest cover of the state also comes in this area where it is important to check illegal tree felling. The Forest Department has also been hit at a time when the country has set key targets to fight climate change by increasing the forest cover across states.

The tussle to occupy the plum post of CCF(Hills) started when the Congress government led by Captain Amarinder Singh transferred Harsh Kumar IFS on January 30, 2018, to the post of CCF, Information Extension. Saurabh Gupta IFS replaced him and assumed charge of CCF (Hills) on the same day.

But Harsh Kumar refused to relinquish the charge and filed a complaint with the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), which ordered a status quo on February 2, 2018. The Government, on February 9, 2018, issued a clarification saying that Saurabh Gupta who assumed charge in the afternoon of January 30th, much before the time when the status quo was ordered by CAT, continues to be legally the CCF (Hills).

After this, on November 21, 2021, and May 31, 2022, two other officers were transferred in routine to occupy the post of CCF (Hills).

As per records, nobody challenged the government’s clarification dated February 9, 2018, or the subsequent postings of other officers to the post of CCF (Hills).

On May 31, 2022, Harsh Kumar was posted as the Director, State Forest Research Institute (SFRI), Ladhowal. The problem started when this officer refused to discontinue performing duties of CCF (Hills) even after taking charge as Director, SFRI, Ladhowal.

The orders passed by Harsh granting permission to people using the stamp of CCF (HIlls) to set up several eco-tourism projects in Mohali and Ropar districts were revoked by the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Jatinder Kumar (now retired), PCCF Parveen Kumar, and the present PCCF R.K. Mishra.

Besides, Harsh’s orders were also rejected by Basanta Raj Kumar, present CCF(Hills), and Kanwardeep Singh, District Forest Officer, Mohali. Many reports about “illegal orders” being passed by Harsh Kumar were sent to the government, but it did not suggest any remedy and allowed the confusion to persist.

On the other hand, Harsh Kumar takes shelter under the orders of CAT, which according to him, grants a status quo permitting him to continue as CCF (Hills). Hence, the government had no power to replace him.

Refusing to accept PCCF as his boss, he further said that his reporting authority was the government as the present PCCF Mishra was his junior, and he had no lawful authority to revoke the orders passed by him.

Indianarrative.com contacted Raji P Srivastava, the Additional Special Chief Secretary, in-charge of the department, to clarify the government’s current stand on the issue. She said that she did not want to comment on the issue.

The no-holds-barred fight between the forest officers has also given rise to many other controversies. One of them is regarding “unauthorised” inquiry conducted by Harsh Kumar into the felling of 25,000 trees on Bist Doab Canal (BDC) against the spirit of the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order dated August 16, 2018. The NGT had ordered that inquiry be conducted by an officer not ‘below the rank of Additional Special Chief Secretary (ASCS).

Interestingly, Anirudh Tiwari, former Chief Secretary, confirmed that he had already submitted his inquiry report on the tree-felling issue to the state government about 8 months ago. This was much before the recent overlapping inquiry report submitted by Harsh Kumar.

Harsh Kumar says that in his capacity as CCF(Hills), it becomes his duty to act on complaints about tree-felling. So, he took “suo-motu” action and sent an in-depth report to the government and the vigilance bureau.

He discredits the report of Anirudh Tiwari on the ground that the latter has no scientific knowledge of forestry. “Tiwari’s conclusion allows the guilty officers to go scot-free, but my report nails 2 IAS officers and 6 IFS officers, who are responsible for tree-felling,” he claims.

Jatinder Kumar, a former PCCF who is one of the accused in Harsh’s report says, “Harsh is settling his personal scores by conducting an overlapping inquiry into tree-felling when he is not even a regular CCF,” adding, “I rightly revoked his orders on eco-tourism projects as they were violative of the law.”

Jatinder Kumar lamented that the state government, for reasons best known to it, was not taking any disciplinary action against Harsh Kumar, who was not only a hardened litigant but also had a long history of insubordination.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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