‘Funds that the Centre gives to states for compensatory afforestation are being grossly misused’.
New Delhi: The arrest of 1987 batch Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, Abhay Kant Pathak from Odisha, and his subsequent suspension from the service on charges of accumulating massive ill-gotten wealth, have brought into focus the misuse of the huge funds that the Central government gives to all the state governments and union territories under Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) for compensatory afforestation.
Pathak was posted as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (APCCF), Plan, Programme and Afforestation, since 2 June 2018 before he was arrested. He was handling the funds that Odisha had got under CAMPA in 2019.
As per government records, Odisha had got Rs 5,933 crore from the Centre for CAMPA, the highest among all the states, followed by Chhattisgarh at Rs 5,791 crore and Madhya Pradesh at 5,196 crore. In all, the Centre gave Rs 47,872 crore to all the states and UTs in 2019 under CAMPA, the main aim of which is to increase forest cover in India.
A Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Odisha state vigilance, which is probing Pathak, has so far found almost Rs 15 crore in cash from him, apart from undeclared property documents in his and his relatives’ names. Pathak spent at least Rs 3 crore on the 20-plus air trips that he undertook on chartered flight during the lockdown.
Under Indian laws, forest land can be diverted for non-forest purposes such as construction of dams, mining and other developmental activities after taking permission from the government. Since this diversion of forest land results in loss of forest cover and biodiversity, compensatory afforestation is also mandated under the law and this is where CAMPA comes into play. For this afforestation, the companies which are acquiring the forest land, should provide an alternative land and pay for planting of the new trees.
However, serving and retired forest officers whom The Sunday Guardian spoke to, stated that the funds that the Centre gives to states under CAMPA are being grossly misused. According to them, Pathak’s case was not an exception, but something that was happening across the country, specifically in the three states of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where these funds are being sent the most.
As per the Forest Survey of India Report of 2019, there has been an increase of just 3% in the forest cover in India compared to 2017. The total forest cover in the country, as per the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) is 7,12,249 km2 which is 21.67% of the total geographical area of the country. This is an increase of 3976 km2 compared to that of the total forest cover in ISFR-2017.
Forest officials said that afforestation is one of the most sought after departments in the states by the forest officers as there is a lot of scope to “earn money”.
While explaining the modus operandi used by corrupt officers to misuse CAMPA funds, a forest officer told The Sunday Guardian, “Let’s assume an afforestation project is passed which states that Rs 20,00,000 will be required for afforesting a particular piece of land under CAMPA. The funds are released. However, in actual, only Rs 5,00,000 is spent on it and the rest is pocketed by the officers. They seek funds in the name of using better quality of soil, better quality of saplings, better quality and quantity of fertilizers. In the report, the officers say that the soil in which the saplings are being grown, was replaced twice for which the fund was spent. However, in reality, the soil might not have been changed even once. Similarly, they might say that 5,000 saplings are being planted, but in reality, it might not be even 2,000. There is a provision that inspection on the ground needs to be done to ensure that the work that has been sanctioned is being carried out on the ground, but the officer who does the inspection, too, gets his share; so nothing gets revealed and this goes on,” a senior Bhopal-based forest officer said.
According to another veteran officer, Rs 1 crore was embezzled by a senior forest officer who was in-charge of CAMPA in a central state. “He passed a project of Rs 1 crore, which was released under CAMPA. He also uploaded pictures of the area where the supposed afforestation was done by using this Rs 1 crore. When I went to the actual site, I saw that it was an agricultural land where farming was happening. Everyone knows such things are happening and since everyone gets their commission, nothing happens,” he said.
He added that funds released for afforestation from the state funds are limited and their use is well-defined. “However, under CAMPA, a lot of discretionary power is there when it comes to carrying out afforestation activities. The forest officers charge commission for procuring barbed wire to secure the sapling site, for cement that is used to erect those barbed wire,” he said.
To monitor the funds under CAMPA, the Centre has appointed a group of three experts of whom two are retired Indian Forest Service officers, while one is a scientist.
Azad Singh Dabas, a 1985 batch IFS officer MP cadre officer, who retired as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (APCCF), recalled a recent incident in Madhya Pradesh in which an audio conversation between a PCCF and a forest ranger on the ground went viral. In the audio clip, the PCCF, who was responsible for carrying out inspection related to afforestation under CAMPA, is telling the ranger to meet him “personally” or he will come to inspect the area under him that has to be forested under CAMPA.
“I brought this to the notice of the CM, the Chief Secretary, the Forest department, but no action was taken. CAMPA funds are being misused grossly in Madhya Pradesh, there are several Pathaks in MP too,” Dabas said.
After the audio clip went viral, a two-member inquiry committee was set up by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government which gave a clean chit to everyone despite the said PCCF later stating it on record that large-scale irregularities were happening when it came to use of CAMPA funds in MP.
According to a senior Gujarat cadre IFS officer, lack of strict monitoring of how the funds are being spent and the liberty available to officers on how to spend it, are derailing what is otherwise a welcome programme. “There are two elements under this law—compensatory afforestation in which you afforest the same amount of area which has been diverted for residential or commercial use, and secondly, you pay for net present value of the forest which was cut, the rate of which is already decided by the Government of India. The money collected from these two elements, goes into the CAMPA funds. The law calls for a specific APCCF and a dedicated team to handle CAMPA funds, but in many states, it is given as an additional charge to an officer. They have liberty to use the CAMPA funds as they like, which is not the case for funds received from the state. In Gujarat, Kutch area is using the maximum amount of CAMPA funds as it has a lot of waste area and afforestation is needed there. As a result of this, officers do their best to get a posting in this region so that they can have access to the huge CAMPA funds. The Government of India needs to strengthen the monitoring under CAMPA as right now it is very weak,” he said.