Politicians behind tree felling

While the Capt Amarinder Singh government has sacked Mr Harbans Lal as Forest Minister for his alleged role in bestowing favours on a senior Congress leader-cum-contractor, Mr Lachhman Singh, who remained minister thrice in Haryana, besides having a stint as Member of Parliament, there are many chinks in the investigation conducted on behalf of the state government. Talking to TNS, Mr Lachhman Singh admitted that he had been a contractor of the past about half a century.

The state government withheld crucial parts of the Chhangani Commission report, indicting the then Chief Minister, Mr Parkash Singh Badal, while selected portions were put on its (Punjab Government’s) official website. It seems to be a deliberate effort of the state government to conceal certain significant parts of the Chhangani report since one of the then Akali ministers indicted by the commission is the father of a Cabinet Minister in the Capt Amarinder Singh government.

Mr Satya Pal Dang, a veteran CPI leader, was the first politician to highlight the ‘loot’ of forest wealth, especially by politicians during the chief ministership of Justice Gurnam Singh and Mr Parkash Singh Badal. Mr Dang expressed surprise as to why no FIR had been registered against Mr Lachhman Singh whose name was repeatedly mentioned in the Chhangani Commission report. Mr Dang said Mr Lachhman Singh was a friend of Justice Gurnam Singh and his successors who was allowed to cut trees at a ridiculously low price. He said the illegal felling of trees continued at the behest of a defunct cooperative society. Even after more than three decades, the real culprits ‘ top politicians and bureaucrats ‘ have not been brought to book. Mr Dang alleged that Mr Parkash Singh Badal got illegal felling of trees done through Mr D.S. Bains, a senior official. He alleged that the then Chief Secretary had okayed charge sheets against guilty officials, but Mr Badal gave a clean chit to them as he himself was involved in the scam. The successors of Mr Badal failed to register a criminal case against the contractor, politicians and bureaucrats involved in the scandal.

Mr Dang said if Capt Amarinder Singh was serious to launch an anti-corruption drive, then he must seek a CBI inquiry into the ‘looting’ of forest wealth for the past about half a century as there was no time limit for criminal offences. He said it was strange that Capt Amarinder Singh was silent over the role of Mr Lachhman Singh.

Talking to TNS on the telephone, Mr Lachhman Singh said the then Chief Minister, Beant Singh, had given him a selling permit in 1992 in Ropar district. However, it was stayed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He said Mr Parkash Singh Badal, who later became the Chief Minister, kept the file with him for eight months (since the portfolio of Forest was with him). He said Mr Badal had no moral right to speak against him as he had also granted selling permits during his regime. However, when the portfolio was given to a BJP minister, Mr Badal had given a note on the file to grant permission. Mr Lachhman Singh said the owner had the right to sell trees.

As per the summary findings of the Chhangani report, to avoid soil erosion and to develop forests in certain areas, the Punjab Government had issued a notification under Sections 3 of the Punjab Preservation Act and declared Siswan as a protected area. However, trees were never auctioned till 1968. For the first time, the then Assistant Registrar, Mr D.S. Bains, held an auction on October 29, 1969, and accepted the bid of Rs 28,000 given by Mr Lachhman Singh, a contractor from Kalka (Haryana). By an agreement, which was signed on the same day, all trees having a girth above 15 cm and standing within 3,500 acres were sold for felling to the contractor. Even mango trees were not excluded. The commission had indicted Mr Satnam Singh Bajwa, the then Forest Minister, and Mr Harnam Singh Bawa too.

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