A ‘timber mafia’, with the connivance of some officials of the forest department, has been pilfering wood worth Rs10 billion from the Changa Manga plantation over the last decade — clearing 75% of the forest, illegally.
An investigative report prepared by the forest department disclosed that the pilferage gangs were allegedly patronised by Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal and his family members. However, Iqbal has denied allegations of financially supporting the timber mafia in the multi-billion-rupee scam.
According to the report, out of the total area of more than 4,000 acres, as much as 3,000 acres of plantation has become barren owing to illegal cutting and theft of wood.
Around 10 years ago, there were over 50,000 Shisham trees, which have been cut down to a meagre 4,500 due to illicit cutting which, the report asserts, was done with assistance from the field staff and supervisory officers.
During the period in question, no resources were allocated for new plantation, afforestation, monitoring the existing forest crop or making provisions for canal water through small tributaries. It was revealed that offenders were illegally supported by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Raja Muhammad Saleem. The forest and wildlife secretary, while taking notice of the issue, transferred the DFO in April and posted Laiqat Ali Gill as the new in-charge on administrative grounds and citing several complaints of damages to the forest.
But the report claims that Speaker Iqbal intervened and compelled the secretary to put on hold the transfer and allow Saleem to continue.
Later, the secretary transferred Changa Manga Sub Divisional Forest Officer (SDFO) Azam Gill on the same allegations and posted Farid Ahmed as the new SDFO.
SDFO Farid, in his report, identified four officials namely Block Officer Mohammad Hanif and three guards Iftikhar Ahmed, Sajjad Saleem and Fiaz Hussain as being involved in the scam.
He disclosed the fact that some “higher officials” were allegedly involved in giving protection and shelter to the notorious officials and culprits involved in the wood theft.
Meanwhile, Forest Secretary Major (retd) Shahnawaz Badar confirmed the interventions in the transfer of the DFO. “The chief minister has constituted a committee to sort out the negligence, and action against delinquent officials will be initiated after recommendations of the committee,” Badar said.
The forest secretary ordered action against the offenders and 14 First Information Reports (FIR) have been lodged against them on the charges of theft of wood worth billions of rupees.
A senior official of the forest department, requesting anonymity, said a show cause notice had been issued to DFO Saleem over poor performance and abuse of authority in the use of funds earmarked for new plantations. Raja was removed on the charges of corruption, connivance with offenders and lack of interest in sowing of plants and regeneration of trees but was later restored on the speaker’s intervention.
On June 16, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif made Chief Conservator Malik Mehboobur Rehman and Conservator Rao Khalid Mehmood (a close relative of the Punjab Assembly speaker) officers on special duty keeping in mind the negligence and huge damage caused to the forest by the timber mafia, an official said.
DFO Saleem has rejected all the allegations maintaining that being a government official he would never do such a thing. He refused to clear his position when asked about his transfer on the charges of corruption.
Meanwhile, Speaker Iqbal said: “I had no relations with the wood pilferage gangs. Transfers and postings were the concern of the administrative department and I avoid interfering in such deals.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2012.