1997 repeated

How tribals are conned out of their timber

By Sopan Joshi
Published: Friday 31 January 2003

-- Yet another instance of the timber mafia encroaching upon the rights of tribal people has come to light. Close to 100 trees on private tribal land were cut down in November 2002 in Chhattisgarh's southern district of Dantewada. The landowner, who died about a month after the felling, was paid a pittance for the timber that is estimated to be worth lakhs of rupees. This violates several special laws made to protect tribal people, who are unaware of the commercial worth of trees on their land. These rules have been flouted or circumvented time and again. Many such instances are known and documented.

The modus operandi of the fraud was first detected in the late 1950s in Madhya Pradesh, when the special laws were framed. In 1997, the Supreme Court (sc) heard what became infamous as the 'Malik Makbuja' (an Urdu term meaning 'possessed by the owner') tree scandal. The episode had snowballed into a major controversy that severely affected the political career of former Union minister and Congress leader Arvind Netam, whose brother was indicted in an enquiry by the Lok Ayukta.

The Central Bureau of Investigation and a three-member state government committee also conducted probes. These exposed the loopholes in the law that officials and the timber mafia exploited. The racket involved:

Fraudulent transfer of land from the rightful landowner to a 'dummy' tribal, as the law prevents non-tribal people from buying tribal land.

Obtaining mandatory permission from the district collector to fell a tree.

In the current case, 98 trees worth thousands of rupees each were felled on the land of Ayaturam, a member of the Muriya tribe and resident of Pandewar village (12 kilometres south of the district headquarters in Dantewada). The trees were valuable and old -- 93 of them teak, which fetches upwards of Rs 3,000-3,500 per cubic foot.

They were felled in the first week of November, according to Ratneshwar Nath, convenor of Ekta Parishad in southern Chhattisgarh. The parishad is a network of grassroots organisations working on the people's right to natural resources. (The 1997 scandal had also come to light due to the efforts of Ekta Parishad, which had filed an intervention application in the 'forest case' being heard in the sc).

As soon as he learned that the trees had been logged, Nath took an enquiry team to the village on December 3. The team included a lawyer, a journalist, a photographer and a videographer. Its report was published in local newspaper Bastar Bandhu on December 8.

Ekta Parishad says Ayaturam and his brother, Pandaruram, were paid Rs 1,000 each before the trees were felled. They were promised more money after the trees were moved. Nath says the patwari of the area, S N Banjare, informed him that Ayaturam sold his land to three tribals about three years ago, without registering the number of trees on the tract. Radhe Lal, a resident of the area, was responsible for the felling, Nath found out. The trees were cut between November 3 and 15 with the help of 24 labourers from the neighbouring Puran Talai village.

A police enquiry was ordered after Nath wrote to district officials. District collector, M S Paikra, told Down To Earth that the felling took place without his permission when patwari Banjare and the forest guard of the range, Jaichand Baghel, were away on Diwali vacation. The patwari has since been suspended. Incidentally, Paikra is an accused in the 1997 scandal. At that time, he was the additional collector of Dantewada. The superintendent of police, Vivekanand Sinha, suspects the tribals who bought Ayaturam's land. The police plan to arrest them. The action may, however, come too late in the day -- the original landowner, Ayaturam, died on December 11. His neighbours are not certain about the cause of the death. Pointing to its timing, Nath says that foul play cannot be ruled out.

Ayaturam's neighbours were not aware of the deceased being involved in any land transaction. Nath says several other irregularities have surfaced that need to be investigated thoroughly. But he doesn't have much faith in the government machinery in apprehending the guilty. He says the fact that so many trees can be felled in the same area where the 1997 scandal occurred shows the government's inclination. He is also of the opinion that the government should have refrained from posting Paikra as the collector of Dantewada. He cites the instance of the sc's empowered committee for Chhattisgarh expressing serious concern at the "flimsy" grounds on which the state government was not taking action against errant officers.

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