Special action plan to take on forest mafias

SALEM, AUG. 14. The Government of India will launch a special action plan to counter the illegal activities of ``forest mafia'', who are well-equipped with the latest arms and communication gear, the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, A. Raja, told The Hindu here last night.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) decided to eliminate these anti-social groups by ``notifying sensitive areas'' in forests in States. District forest officers were asked to identify the ``sensitive forest tracts'' immediately.

Based on their report, the Ministry would equip the forest officials and guards with the latest communication equipment, sophisticated arms and vehicles. The scheme would be implemented in phases as it involved a huge expenditure. Highly vulnerable forest zones would be given priority.

Stringent action would also be taken against the timber mafia, which was denuding forests.

``Many State Forest Ministers and senior bureaucrats have expressed their grave concern to me over the increasing activities of these illegal groups that destroy forests. We will tackle them sternly,'' said Mr. Raja.

A problem

But unlike as the Railway and Telecommunications Ministries, which could directly initiate measures in States, the MOEF could handle forest-related issues only through the State Governments. ``Hence we have to direct link on various schemes that are being implemented by us. Unless social activists and non-governmental organisations bring specific issues to our notice, we will not be in a position to take definite action on forest-related issues.''

For instance, the Minister pointed out, widespread complaints were received from the public in some States, including Tamil Nadu, that the functioning of the joint committees, formed with local participation to monitor forest wealth, was not satisfactory. ``The reason is the high interference of ruling partymen''. The Ministry would form a panel of experts to review the functioning of the forest committees. It would shortly visit Tamil Nadu to verify the complaints.

Another MOEF technical committee would tour the State to assess the status of projects which had been taken up three years ago under the ``River Conservation Scheme.''

A sum of Rs. 1,200 crores was allotted to clean rivers such as the Cauvery, the Vaigai and the Tamiraparani and the Buckhimgam canal in Chennai. Delays in the execution of these projects, if any, would be analysed. ``Based on the assessment report, the Ministry will take necessary action,'' Mr. Raja said.

The MOEF was committed to tribal welfare, he said. ``We have clearly instructed the officials that while enforcing the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, the rights of tribals and forest dwellers should not be ignored. The Government filed a petition asking the apex court to finalise guidelines on the issue of cut-off year for regularisation of land settlements for tribals. ``The rights of tribals on lands will not be affected.''

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