Putting a big question mark on the functioning of the Forest Department, High Court today said that green cover of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is decreasing continuously due to encroachments and illegal cutting of trees but the concerned authorities have failed to take urgent steps to check the prevailing situation.
Moreover, the High Court has expressed concern over the process of allotment and execution of contracts for extraction of non-timber forest produce and asked the Secretary to the Government, Forest, Ecology and Environment Department and Chief Conservator of Forests to take appropriate action on this aspect also.
While dismissing a writ petition titled Mohammad Sadiq Wani Versus Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and others, Justice Rajesh Bindal observed, “this court is constrained to observe that the way the Forest Department is working cannot be appreciated”, adding “it has large area under its control in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir but unfortunately not being monitored properly though there are several ways and means to do the same”.
“Forest cover is decreasing as encroachments are increasing day by day. Illegal forest cutting is also rampant and some urgent steps are required to be taken to take care of our green cover”, Justice Bindal further observed.
Pointing towards the issue highlighted by the petitioner that different yardsticks were adopted by the Forest Department for execution of contract for extraction, collection and removal of non-timber forest produce from Marwah Forest Division, High Court further observed, “on year to year basis, the contracts are awarded for extraction, collection and removal of non-timber forest produce, which is of natural growth”, adding “in such a situation, how extension for extraction and removal of non-timber forest produce can be envisaged remains a mystery. It cannot be comprehended as to how at the same time two persons can be allowed to extract and remove forest produce from the same area”.
“This may create dispute amongst the contractors. The agreement signed between the parties is also not happily worded”, Justice Bindal said, adding “legal mind has to be applied when these kinds of agreements are to be drafted and got signed. These aspects of the matter are required to be examined at the highest level as to find out whether there has been annual award of contracts for extraction and removal of non-timber forest produce from different forest areas, if not whether there were good reasons for the same or who was responsible for causing loss to the public exchequer”.
Laying stress on evolving fool proof mechanism for extraction and removal of non-timber forest produce, Justice Bindal asked, “under what circumstances, the contractor, who had been awarded contract for extraction of produce for a particular period can be granted extension when the period of extension may overlap with the period for which next year’s contract may be awarded”.
Accordingly, Justice Bindal directed that the copy of the order be sent to the Secretary to Government, Forest, Ecology and Environment Department of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Chief Conservator of Forests for appropriate action on decreasing forest cover due to encroachments and illegal cutting of trees and evolving a foolproof mechanism for extraction and removal of non-timber forest produce.
The case before the High Court was that while the petitioner was not given extension of time for extraction and removal of allotted quota of non-timber forest produce, another contractor was granted extension even after expiry of period of his contract as such petitioner was not treated at par with another contractor.
However, Justice Bindal, while dismissing the petition, observed, “this Court does not find any reason to interfere in the present petition for the reason that Clause 12 of the agreement clearly provides for arbitration of any dispute arising out of the agreement”.
“Once there is effective alternate remedy already provided in the agreement itself, the writ petition filed for resolution of a dispute arising out of that contract is not maintainable”, High Court said, adding “the petitioner can avail of alternate remedy as provided for in the agreement”.