Forest land in Andaman, nobody's baby

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Port Blair, May 1 (ANI): In Namuna Ghar, south Andaman, something is a miss. This is prime forestland, to be protected at all costs as per government regulations. In fact, this is the area under green cover, which would offset the allotment of deemed forestland to tsunami-affected farmers. Yet, this has become the scene of a massive plunder of forest wealth.

The miscreants are allegedly Bangladeshis, who live in hamlets around the area and are engaged in chopping down and burning precious commercial and non-commercial trees in Mithakhari and Namuna Ghar villages in Tusonabad Range of Forest Department.

What is quite disturbing is that, despite the blatant violation of the law; the people involved are brazen about it.

Saibal Roy, allegedly a Bangladeshi, says he came to the Islands four years ago and was living in Manglutan village. He had now shifted to Mithakhari and was clearing the forest for cultivation and creating a homestead.

Saibal Roy and hundreds of his ilk living in shanties, which have sprung up on the cleared land, reflect the brazenness of the administration. The very authorities, who are meant to protect the land are violating the very system. he fallout may or may not be felt by Saibal Roy immediately but to this sensitive eco-system in the islands, it will be highly detrimental.

It would lead to heavy silting, disturb and even destroy the mangrove swamps. Mangroves are the natural protective cover for natural calamities like the tsunami and are critical to a healthy ecological balance in islands.

With global warming and the threat of rising sea levels, this could be a recipe for disaster in the coming years. That was at Namuna Ghar village. And this was not an aberration. Mithakhari village speaks of a similar story, large scale destruction, felling and burning of huge logs.

Complaints had been made to the Forest Range Officer (FRO), and Revenue authorities but to no effect.

According to V.K. Aboobacker, a villager of Namuna Ghar, "About 500 acres of deemed forest land is under the process of felling, burning and clearing at the hand of suspected Bangladeshis".

He speaks of the nexus at work that is at the root of this wanton destruction "Bangladeshis are plundering the valuable natural wealth at will with the active support and connivance of Forest, Revenue and PRI functionaries".

Pained by the events, Aboobacker finally took the matter to the Divisional Forest Officer, (DFO) South Andaman, Dr P Viswakannan. It led to an ostensible 'inspection' of the site of the plunder which Viswakannan visited along with Lazarus Kindo, Range Officer and a forest guard on March 27.

After confirming from Kindo, that the timber being felled was on revenue land, his answer to Aboobacker was clipped, even terse: We can't do anything. You contact revenue authorities".

Ironically, it is the Forest Department which is the custodian of all the trees whether grown in revenue allotted or un-allotted land, deemed, reserved, protected forest or in tribal reserves.

It may seem that in this instance, Viswakannan without compunction dismissed the pleas of Aboobacker and in abjured his responsibility towards protecting the forest from wanton destruction. In a larger sense, however, is the sense of callousness of forest officers entrusted the onerous task of protection of forests. What is disturbing is that this may not be just one lapse, but a pattern endemic to their way of functioning.

The ramifications of this kind of destructive activity can go beyond the felling of trees. Once the rules are flouted, the lapses widen as is happening in this case as well. Within the same South Andaman Division of forest land, huge quantities of earth were being removed by Andaman Public Work Department (APWD) contractors right under the nose of the forest guard.

This was ostensibly for construction of dykes at Namuna Ghar II and Mithakhari by Water and Power Consultants Ltd (WAPCOS)', a Govt of India enterprise. What makes it worse is that this 'earth-cutting' was happening at a distance of 10 metres or so from the creek.

In an eco-system, fragile as it is in islands, this is tantamount to endangering the mangrove swamps. How come this land for digging the earth was allotted at Namuna Ghar Quarry area by the Deputy Commissioner, South Andaman?

This is in contravention of Coastal Regulations since the quarry was closed precisely because it was dangerously close to mangrove swamps.

The efficacy of the dykes designed and approved by WAPCOS would be proved only after completion when it starts to fight the seawater ingression. But the damage to the environment and the mangrove ecosystem would do which could have repercussions on the islanders.

According to Charkha Features, what is happening at Namura Ghar, Mithakhari are not isolated events but a complex play of forces intent on subverting the system for self-interest. And all this is not spearheaded by anti-social elements but by those in authority!

The ugliness is all too apparent and there is a larger tapestry than what merely meets the eye. A retired forest official, who has seen it all. wryly sums it up: "When reserve forest is violated, Coastal Regulation and environmental concerns are ignored with impunity; the whole thing smells of a sinister design involving senior officers/"

So for these emerald isles, the jewel in the Indian Ocean, where does the buck stop? Who takes onus of things going wrong, not by oversight but by a deliberate, brazen violation of the laws of the land? Not by miscreants but by those in whose hands is entrusted the authority and power to govern, to uphold these laws. By Govinda Raju (ANI)

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