Root of the problem

Felling exposes timber mafia-forest official nexus

Punjab’s scalding cauldron of troubles is foaming and frothing over the brim. It is stark as much for its pointedness as for the telling character of the state’s law-enforcers. The abiding challenges are on multiple fronts of farm distress, drugs, gun culture, illicit sand mining, and now, timber mafia. There is no sustainable solution in sight. Political will folds up soon after a vacuous assurance and a weak resolve to put up a determined fight. And here, the political class is content to let the matter rest. There is no calibrated, multipronged response at all levels of government. In a glaring case of felling of khair trees in Gujjar-dominated villages of Ropar district, 500-odd trees have been axed illegally. The official figure puts it at under 250. 

That the illegal activity has been going on, one, undetected; two, on forest land mutated in names of individuals and panchayat forest; three, 25 km from the Punjab Civil Secretariat; and four, for the past several months, is a reflection of the incompetence of the forest department. Village residents point to the connivance between the timber mafia and some officials in violation of the Punjab Land Preservation Act and Forest Act. They may be closer to the truth. The issuance of permits in January to cut nearly 5,000 trees has been clearly misused to cover large-scale unauthorised felling. ‘Departmental action’ — against a forester and guard — is a familiar platitude. It is but a mild rap, and a poor substitute for real action. 

Further probe may follow, but will run into the sand if felling resurfaces after a pause, here or elsewhere. Gross damage is already done. Bringing down a tree is a half-hour effort. A tree takes long years to grow in all its glory. Unlawful felling has been going on in Shivalik hills for long. Alarm bells have been sounded, often and loud, to no avail. Forest plunderers are enjoying covert impunity. There is no end to greed, and that is where the state must step in. It must adopt effective and early measures, else it will be mistaking the wood for the trees.

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