DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, July 27 - Holong, the State tree of Assam, is fast vanishing from many reserve forests under Digboi and Doomdooma forest divisions in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in the face of rampant illegal logging. Once dotted with this towering variety (growing over 50 metres) across the entire stretch of these rainforests, many reserve forests today lie highly degraded bereft of green cover.
While NGO activists attribute the deforestation to the inertia of the forest department besides a nexus of some officials with the timber mafia, the forest department admits that some illegal activities were taking place due to the severe manpower crunch plaguing these divisions. It, however, brushes aside allegations of any nexus as �completely baseless�.
�Illegal logging has been rampant in Digboi and Doomdooma divisions with the forest authorities looking the other way for obvious reasons. A section of officials are hand-in-gloves with the timber mafia. A CBI probe is needed to unearth the nexus,� Devajit Moran, secretary of Green Bud Society which has also been campaigning against coal mining in the Dehing Patkai range, said.
Moran added that reserve forests had been denuded of large trees, including the holong, almost on a daily basis. �These forests will not survive if this vandalism continues. Lakhipathar, Namphai, Lekhapani, Tinkapani, Pengeri, Tarani, etc., are some forests that have seen widespread logging,� he said.
Moran also provided photographs of large-scale illegal logging in those areas, many of those being recent occurrences.
When asked, a top forest official said that the department had seized some illegally-felled timber, including those at Lakhipathar, recently and investigation was on to nab the culprits.
�We are hamstrung by a debilitating manpower shortage. At Digboi, the vacancy is as high as 66 per cent and ten per cent of the existing personnel are not fit for frontline rigours due to old age and ailments. Four posts of range officers are also lying vacant at Digboi. Similar has been the situation at Doomdooma,� he said.
The Digboi division does not even have a permanent DFO (divisional forest officer) despite the fact that two-thirds of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary fall under it.
Moran termed the manpower shortage as an alibi and said that an illegal syndicate involving some forest officials was at the root of the illegalities. �Without connivance of the authorities, such blatant illegalities cannot continue. Corrupt officials allow the timber mafia to fell trees, which are later shown as seized logs and handed back to the mafia through auction. There should be a probe by the CBI,� he said.
In the Dibrugarh division that houses the famed Jeypore reserve forest, a part of which is under the wildlife sanctuary, forest authorities claim that there has been intensified vigil to curb illegal activities.
�We have stepped up vigil and monitoring the situation round-the-clock in spite of the inclement weather. Our boys are committed and, of late, we have not come across any illegal activities,� Pradipta Baruah, DFO, said.
A wildlife activist said that it was in view of widespread media reports in the past two months that has compelled the authorities into some kind of action.
�There had been illegal logging, rat-hole mining and poaching at Jeypore area. It is good if the authorities have intensified their vigil but it should continue in order to be meaningful,� he said.
A recent confidential internal inquiry by the forest department corroborates the allegations of NGO activists about illegal logging and coal mining. The report, which was accessed by The Assam Tribune, lays bare large-scale clearing of forests at Namphai, Tinkapani, Lekhapani and Saleki forests, which was followed by opencast mining.
�Can such shocking illegalities take place without the knowledge and connivance of the forest authorities? A high-level probe is a must to fix responsibility for these appalling forest crimes,� Moran said.