Cutting of trees near the Mullaperiyar Baby Dam has opened up a controversy, putting the Left Democratic Front led by Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala on the back foot. In a face saving demeanour, a forest officer was suspended pending inquiry over the controversial order allowing Tamil Nadu to cut down 15 trees near the baby dam.
After the order allowing the neighbouring state to cut the trees embroiled into a major storm, the state government revoked its order in fear that it would hamper the state’s interest in the long pending Mullperiyar Dam issue. Kerala has been demanding construction of a new dam by decommissioning the present one. Apart from this, Chief Wildlife Warden Bennichan Thomas, who issued the order, was suspended alleging that he took a unilateral decision regarding tree felling.
Kerala would not have known about the tree felling order if Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin had not thanked his counterpart Pinarayi Vijayan on November 6 for allowing trees to be cut down to facilitate maintenance work on the dam site. Soon after the order was highlighted in the media and the opposition took up the issue, Forest Minister A K Saseendran and Water resources Minister Roshy Augustine said that the government was not aware of the order.
Though the minister’s gave out statements, the Chief Minister was maintaining a prolonged silence inside and outside Assembly (the house was in session when the controversy erupted). Opposition raised doubts over the silence, and even demanded why he was so silent all the way.
DO OFFICIALS DARE?
Despite the claims of the Ministers, several questions are raised of how a decision like that of allowing Tamil Nadu to cut the trees near the controversial dam bypassed the Ministers and even the Chief Minister. It should be noted that the order allowing the tree felling came soon after Tamil Nadu minister Dorai Murugan’s statement that the state will raise the water level to 152 feet after strengthening the baby dam. Apart, doubts have been raised if an official would issue a controversial order without consulting the minister concerned or even the Chief Minister; after all, it is a boiling issue.
No one could be blamed for doubting if an official will dare to issue an order on his own, allowing Tamil Nadu to cut the trees; no official would have the guts to surpass Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Moreover, Kerala has always been maintaining caution on the decades old Mullaperiyar issue. In such situation, the issuance of the controversial order without the knowledge of the two ministers and even the Chief Minister is a major issue. Though the officials could give permission to cut trees, a policy decision was involved in the issue and the officials should have consulted the ministers concerned before giving any order. Well, some political pundits point out that the officials, who are aware of the consequences of such orders, would have never dare to take any risk.
The Chief Wild Life Warden gave the permission for felling of trees at the Baby dam site was issued on November 5 based on the decision taken at a high level meeting held at the office of the additional chief secretary (Water Resources) on November 1. Forest Minister A K Saseendran admitted this in the Assembly by quoting the minutes of the meeting. However, Water Resource Minister said that no such meeting was held.
Despite two ministers standing apart on the meeting, documents that came out revealed that Water Resources, Home and Vigilance Additional Chief Secretary T K Jose met forest, revenue, power and water resources officials in his chamber on November 1 to discuss the request filed online by the Tamil Nadu Water Resources Department.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu conducted a joint verification of the trees on site on June 11 and decided to cut 15 trees under the baby dam. On September 3, Gulshan Raj, the ex officio chairman of the permanent supervisory committee in Mullaperiyar directed Kerala to take steps to cut 15 trees. Based on the directive, Jose convened the meeting on November 1.