GUWAHATI, Sept 11 - In what smacks of a major scam, truckloads of timber were transported outside the State without following the standard operating procedure (SOP) laid down by the Central government.
In an office memorandum circulated to all chief secretaries of northeastern states in 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF) had laid down “strict” guidelines to be followed while transporting timber from the region. According to the legal framework prepared by the MoEF on the directions of the Supreme Court in 2016, movement of round timber, sawn timber and veneer is only permitted using watermarked transit pass (TP).
However, it has come to light that a majority of the consignments that went out of the State in the last three years – if not all – had normal TPs and not watermarked ones. Watermarked TPs (which resembles a currency note) have a subtle image permanently impressed into paper during the manufacturing process and it cannot be forged unlike normal transit passes.
Sources said when a preliminary inquiry was conducted recently, the DFOs and other forest officers cited non-availability of the watermarked TPs which are printed only in government presses. However, the Regional Office of the MoEF in Shilling has revealed that some 1,500 TPs were issued by the Central government to the State.
What has lent credence to the possibility of a major scandal is that over 1,000 watermarked TPs were recovered from a closet at the office of the CCF (Territorial), Lower Assam Zone, in March 2019.
“There were some 200 such books, each having 50 watermarked passes in the box. There was no explanation as to why were these dumped there and by whom,” a source revealed.
In a circular to all DFOs (territorial), the forest department recently said that the Regional Office of MoEF in Shillong, in its communications dated 18/12/2017, 17/09/2018 and 6/03/2019, watermarked TPs supplied by the MoEF in (2005, 2007 and 2008) are “still available with the Assam Forest Department, can be used without getting the holograms affixed from the Shillong Regional Office.” However, as and when the watermarked TPs are printed afresh by the Assam Forest Department, they would need affixing of the holograms by the Regional Office of MoEF as a measure of authentication.
Sources said the State government has a report on the irregularities, but for reasons unknown it was dragging its feet on an inquiry which could unearth a major scam and which may even entangle politicians.
In its order in 2016, the Supreme Court had directed the Government of India to identify the legal framework under which movement of timber and its products is permissible and take steps to ensure that the movement of timber is carried out only in accordance with the prescribed regulatory control. Following the directions, the Union Forest Ministry had prepared the SOP for the movement of timber.
Plywood and veneer is mostly transported from the upper Assam areas of Digboi, Dibrugarh, Doomdooma, etc. In train, the timber consignments move from Rangapara, Lanka, Bongaigaon, etc.