Cannot cut trees on one's own land

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Thursday 15 May 2008

Cannot cut trees on one's own land

By the time Panda got  the per (Credit: RANJAN K PANDA)When Bijaya Chandra Panda wanted to cut down a few trees on his 8 hectare (ha) plot he thought he was well within his rights to do so. Little did he realize that it would take him 300 applications, 20 petitions under the Right to Information Act, 2005 and more than two years to get permission to cut down the trees.

Panda hails from Birsinghgarh village of Orissa's Sambalpur distict. But his family hadn't always lived there. "We were displaced by the Hirakud dam in the 1950s," he says. Panda's family purchased land from the compensation money, and Panda inherited 8 ha of that. "In 2005, I needed money to pay for my children's higher education. So I decided to fell trees on half of my holding and raise the money by selling wood. I also wanted to cut down the trees because I had decided to grow cash crops on the land." Panda, who comes from a politically conscious family--he's related to the late Prasanna Panda, a communist leader known for taking up the cause of the dam-affected and displaced--believed that securing permission under the Orissa Timber and oft rules, 1980, also called tt rules, would not be much of a problem. He filed an application on December 23, 2005 seeking permission to cut trees and sell the wood under section 7 of the tt rules.

But he hadn't reckoned that he would run into an officious divisional forest officer (dfo). "Subhash Chandra Sahu, the dfo of Sambalpur South Forest Division first dissuaded me from filing the application. Then he advised me to sell my trees to smugglers, if I wanted money fast," Panda says.

The dfo refutes the charges. But the forest official's actions speak otherwise. "I went to the office a number of times and enquired about action on my application. I wrote to Sahu, asking why he was not writing to the tehsildar for a joint verification report which was mandatory under the law. However, the dfo chose to remain silent. So I started filing rti applications. I also wrote to the conservator of forests, Sambalpur's district collector, even the Chief Minister of Orissa." One day, Panda received a letter from the dfo saying that he could not be given permission as his case was under the Private Forest Preservation Act 1947(Rules 1963). "It was outrageous as that act had been repealed 21 years ago," Panda says.

He caught this anomaly and wrote back with copies marked to senior forest officials. But nothing happened and Sahu kept coming up with one arbitrary reason after another for not allowing Sahu the right to cut the trees. He started questioning the type of the land and his ownership of it. Following Panda's letters, the chief minister of Orissa ordered an enquiry. But, there was no action on Panda's application. A harassed Panda then wrote to Orissa's Lokpal in August, 2007.

Lokpal S. C. Mohapatra ruled in his favour on January 24, 2008. But by then Panda had sold half of his land and had borrowed Rs.2,64,000 to pay for his children's education. He had also acceded to the dfo's conditions--Sahu had secured a written commitment from Panda that he would sell the wood to the Orissa Forest Development Corporation (ofdc) depot at Sambalpur. " I accepted his condition because I was desperate for money," Panda says. ofdc, however, could not quote a price before the Lokpal delivered hi verdict.

After the verdict, Panda cut down the trees. But more than three months after the Lokpal intervened, timber worth about Rs 7 lakh is still lying on Panda's land because the dfo's office is yet to issue the permission to remove it. Asked about the delay, the dfo could only say, "I have played by the rules".

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