Monday, 3 October 2016

Scams grow on trees too; ask BBMP

Bangalore Mirror d. 4/10/2016
t was a brazen scam that ought to have become a case study in itself; one that many knew of, but no one had quantified, either by design or default.

The long and short of it, as Bangalore Mirror has found after examining court documents, was this: 228 trees were felled for a paltry Rs 2.47 lakh when they could have fetched at least 10 times that amount; lakhs of rupees were later siphoned off and shown as expenditure to fell the same (non-existent) trees for road-widening; and all this was done without following procedures that are mandated by a number of environmental laws. Worse, all senior officials both in the state government and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) would have been in the know of things since matters were later filed in court.
This scam was a bizarre series of financial irregularities and fraudulent activities by BBMP officials that were meticulously documented by environmental activists, and clubbed together as annexures to an interlocutory application that was to be presented to court during the hearing of a public interest litigation (PIL). An interlocutory application is “an application to the court in any suit, appeal or proceedings already instituted in such court, other than a proceeding for execution of a decree or order.”

But when the Karnataka High Court rejected the petition in June 2015, the chance to nail the culprits and also tell the people of the city how officials had been violating laws and looting the public was lost. The application was to have been heard in court the very day that the original petition was rejected.

  How the scam cropped up

The scam dates back much earlier—to 2007-08 when trees were being felled for the widening of Bellary Road (the stretch that leads from Chalukya Circle to the airport). The number of trees felled and the amount recovered were mentioned in response to queries filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act by CIVIC Bangalore. The NGO was one of the three petitioners in the PIL that had in May 2008 challenged the flouting of urban planning norms and process for road-widening activities by the BBMP.

The RTI responses had come on February 4, 2008, but were clubbed together as part of the interlocutory application on September 4, 2012. Petitioners had planned to take it up on June 8, 2015. However, that day the court rejected the PIL, saying that the second petitioner (Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group) had an office abutting a road that was slated for widening. The court said, “Some amount of private interest is involved in this litigation, and, therefore, this case cannot be termed as public interest litigation.” ESG itself was the first petitioner, Saldanha the second, and CIVIC Bangalore the third.

At the time of filing of the petition in May 2008, the ESG office was located East End B Main Road in Jayanagar. The NGO later shifted to Outer Ring Road in Banashankari. When the PIL was admitted, no widening of roads were taking place near ESG’s Jayanagar office. The locus standi of Saldanha was never disputed in the eight years when the case was heard in the high court, and over 45 preceding hearings. Many interim orders, seen to be landmark in import, had also been passed earlier in the case.
What the scam was about

The RTI responses were reported about, but few cared to look into the fine print. It was not simply about 228 trees being felled in the 2007-08 fiscal year (ending January 31, 2008) on Bellary Road for an amount of Rs 2,47,322; it also about what tree species were felled, and what amounts were recovered.

In one instance, 19 trees were felled near CBI junction, and auctioned off for a paltry Rs 25,000. These included five mahogany trees, and two raintrees. On the Cunningham Road - Ramanashree junction, nine trees were felled for an amount of a meagre Rs 3,096. This lot included four Ashoka trees. Worse, nine Ashoka trees, four gulmohars and one raintree were chopped down near the Windsor Manor Bridge - Sankey Road Underpass for a measly Rs 4,334.

Leave alone the ecological worth of the trees, the commercial value of the trees were not evaluated in the media either. Even by conservative estimates, the trees that were felled on Bellary Road would have been worth more than Rs 1 lakh each, with some of the fully-grown and mature trees possibly reaching even Rs 4 lakh in commercial terms; these fetched the BBMP a trifle more than Rs 1,000 each. The loss to the public exchequer could have been anything between Rs 2.5 crore and Rs 5.0 crore.

But what happened subsequently was even more baffling.

Between November 5 and November 18, 2008, an amount of at least Rs 4,25,850 was spent for tree-felling on the same stretch on Bellary Road. Five sheets extracted from BBMP’s Detailed Contingent Bill Register showed 46 instances of public funds being withdrawn from the exchequer for hiring contractors to fell trees, including Bellary Road. Most of the entries in the register do not even mention the area where trees were felled. Road-widening and tree-felling on Bellary Road, which finds specific mention in five instances, had already been completed in time for the inauguration of the airport in May 2008.

A closer look at the sheets—that were later submitted as annexures in the interlocutory application—shows the callousness and impunity with which these were done. The works were mentioned under three ambiguous heads: “undertaking tree-felling”, “maintaining tree-felling” and “daily wage for tree-felling”. In none of the entries were the number of trees mentioned, and nor the exact location of the activity entered in as many as 37 of the entries. The amounts withdrawn were even more irregular. In ten instances, Rs 95,000 were shown as bill value; in nine other cases, the bill value was identical: Rs 90,400.

Culprits go scot-free

Quantifying the exact loss to the exchequer on account of selling trees at throwaway or questionable prices is the job of a competent authority like the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of the country, but the violations were there for all to see and ascertain.

Since the interlocutory application had already been filed, all the respondents to the petition (even if it was eventually rejected) would have been aware of the contents, which included documentation of the two scams. The respondents included the chief secretary, the principal secretary to the department of forests, ecology and environment, the BBMP commissioner, the palike tree officer, besides eleven others.

In simple words, all top officials both in the government and palike were aware of what was going on, but nobody did anything to prevent the loot and destruction of the city’s forest wealth. And mind you, this was a scam pertaining only to one road in a city where 400 roads were marked by the BBMP for widening.

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