Nitesh Kumar Sahoo

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has imposed a fine of Rs 1 crore on the Odisha government for felling sal trees to plant guava saplings in Jajpur district.

In its letter to the Odisha government through the Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Environment Department, the NGT stated that sal trees were illegally felled in the forest land/revenue forest land over an area of about 377.83 acres for the development of horticultural purposes in Damodarpur, Botalanda and Kharagala mouzas of Sukinda tehsil in the district. 

Further, in the letter, it stated the lands are 'patara jungle and sal jungle kisam' and that heavy machinery was used for clearing the forest land.

The Integrated Regional Office, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Bhubaneswar was designated as the Nodal Body for the probe committee. The committee was tasked with the duty to inspect the site in question and submit its report. 

The letter further read, "Question is when the land in question is identified as ‘Sal Jungle’, how could it be utilized for Guava Plantation? Guava trees are not trees identified as ‘Sal Jungle’. Once the nature of the land is classified as ‘Sal Jungle’ or ‘Patita Jungle’ the said land could not have been utilized for any purposes other than forest purposes without seeking permission from the Central Government for use of the said forest land for non-forest purposes as provided under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980."

Based on the reports and observations, the NGT directed the State government to deposit a sum of Rs 1 crore with the Divisional Forest Officer, Cuttack Forest Division, towards Environmental Compensation within a period of two months and file an affidavit of compliance in this regard. 

However, the government will be open to applying for conversion of the forest land in question for non-forest use as per the provisions of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Moreover, the NGT directed the DFO, Cuttack to utilise the money for the development of a Biodiversity Park in the area by planting a mix of endemic trees including medicinal plants and herbal garden with an aim to improve the genetic and ecosystem diversity of the area.