Shimla: Taking stern action against the illicit felling of 416 trees in Forest Range Koti, Himachal Pradesh High Court on Saturday has directed State’s Principal Secretary (Forests) for computation of recovery of Rs.34,68,233/- from the 16 Forest Department officers.

These officers include two Conservator of Forests, two Divisional Forest Officers, three Assistant Conservator of Forests, two Range Forest Officers, six Block Officers and one Forest Guard, who remained posted at Bhalawag Beat, Koti Forest Block, Koti Forest Range, Shimla Forest Divisions and Shimla Forest Circle from 2015 to 2018.

The orders have been passed by a Division Bench comprising Chief Justice L.Narayana Swamy and Justice Anoop Chitkara on the petition, taken up suo moto by the Court as Public Interest Litigation.

However, the Court, has also given these officers an opportunity to appear before the Court on May 27, 2021, if they want themselves to be heard before making the aforesaid recovery and entry of the aforesaid lapse in their service record.

During the course of hearing, it was brought to the notice of the Court by the Amicus Curiae appointed in the matter, that as per Mandatory Field Instructions, it is the mandatory duty on the part of the Range Officer, Assistant Conservator of Forest, Divisional Forest Officer and Deputy Conservator of Forests to carry out field inspection and to detect any felling of trees. The Range Officer, DFO and CPD shall undertake 100% inspection of all the works under their jurisdictions and shall submit report as per the schedule indicated. He also stated that in order of Department of Forest Farming and Conservation, HP dated 4.5.1994, the minimum touring days of Conservator of Forests, Divisional Forest Officer, ACF and Range Forest Officer have been specified. He also stated that instead of initiating action against the higher officers, the action has been initiated only against the officers/official who are lowest in rank and they have been targeted.

Advocate General Ashok Sharma said that the three officers failed to bring the illegal felling of the trees to the notice of their superiors, therefore, action was initiated against them. He also stated that Bhoop Ram who is a licensee of a stone crusher has illegally cut 416 trees, the cost of which is Rs.34,68,233/- and out of this amount, almost entire amount has been recovered and only a sum of approximately Rs.4 lacs is to be recovered.

The Court observed that the State must have recovered the cost of timber, but value of trees cannot be evaluated as trees are oxygen producer and de-carbonizer.

“Officers who are responsible for this loss of trees of 100 years age have to be put to task. This kind of illegal and illicit felling of trees cannot be compensated in any manner,” said the Court.

The Court also observed that the Order of Department of Forest Farming and Conservation, Himachal Pradesh dated May 4, 1984 confers duty on the part of the officer to visit the forest and it should have been treated as mandatory duty. Where a statute imposes a duty, it is sometimes to be inferred that any person injured as the result of breach of the duty shall have a remedy in damages, even in the absence of negligence.

The bench said that when a person has an important duty to perform, he is bound to perform that duty; and if he neglects or refuses to do so, and an individual in consequence sustains injury, that lays the foundation for an action to recover damages by way of compensation.

“The duty is cast upon the officer which is an administrative duty and which is not discretionary and failure on the part of the officer to perform the duty is misfeasance which means a failure to do something when there is a legal duty to do especially by a person in authority” the bench added.

The Court observed that responsibility of felling of trees is to be fixed from the Forest Guard upto the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, as all these officers are responsible for inaction, in terms of Mandatory Field Instructions and Field Touring for the purpose of physical verification and there is dereliction of duties on their part.

The Court has posted the matter for May 27.

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Navneet Rathore is a Shimla based journalist having two-years of experience in the field of journalism. Navneet is a post-graduate in Journalism and Mass Communications from Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla and is specialised in crime, education, health, environment, agriculture and Horticulture beats.