When Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 10 June ‚ÄĒ their first meeting since the PM assumed office ‚ÄĒ among the various issues they discussed was the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). Raman Singh demanded that the funds deposited under CAMPA should be handed over to the state.
The CAMPA fund was set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2009 to facilitate environmental conservation. Under the scheme, Chhattisgarh was expected to receive around Rs 3,000 crore over the next five years. Raman Singh emphasised that if the Centre released the entire amount, the state government would be able to speed up the work. As he praised his own government for efficiently utilising the funds, Modi assured him that he would look into the matter.
But just a day after the CM made the demand, a PIL petition was filed in the Supreme Court accusing the Chhattisgarh government of misusing the funds. The petition claimed the government did not spend the money in accordance with the CAMPA guidelines and that it was spent in ways that did not benefit the public. It alleged that senior government officials colluded to spend the money for purposes other than what it was meant for. It also accused the Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) constituted under the MoEF of doing nothing despite being aware of the scam.
The petition warned that the state government was seeking the release of the entire fund to serve its own interests and sought a probe by an independent agency to recover the misutilised money from the accused persons. When the apex court admitted the petition filed by freelance journalist and social activist Narayan Singh Chauhan, questions were raised over why Raman Singh was demanding the release of the funds.
In his petition, Chauhan listed the various activities for which the funds were allegedly used, including illegal constructions, purchase of luxury vehicles, eco-tourism, deforestation and unofficial tours by officers. More than Rs 100 crore was spent on these activities, the petitioner alleged.
To Hell With Guidelines
‚ô¶ The CAMPA guidelines allow for the provision of vehicles to forest officials below the Range Officer level as they have to tour extensively in their jurisdiction. But in Chhattisgarh, most of the vehicles were purchased for officials of higher rank. Also, the vehicles included luxury cars ‚ÄĒ a clear violation of the guidelines
‚ô¶ The guidelines prohibit the use of the funds for eco-tourism activities, yet crores were spent for that purpose in Chhattisgarh. The CAG also questioned it
‚ô¶ It was decided to plant 400 trees per hectare at the rate of Rs 15,100, yet at some places, the rates jumped to Rs 52,704 per hectare
‚ô¶ Claiming that non-forest land was unavailable for afforestation, already dense forest areas were shown as plantation sites
Interestingly, CAMPA had been set up following the Supreme Court‚Äôs verdict on another PIL. That petition, which had been filed by several civil society groups, had sought to draw the court‚Äôs attention to environmental damage caused by industrialisation and demanded compensation for loss of forest land due to non-forest uses. The apex court had then directed the Centre to set up the CAMPA fund along with the governments of 14 states that had seen destruction of forests. The idea was that when forest land is sold to industries, an equivalent area would be purchased elsewhere to plant trees as ‚Äúcompensatory afforestation‚ÄĚ.
In its guidelines dated July 2009, the MoEF not only directed where to use the fund money but also clearly mentioned where it was not to be used. As per the SC order, 10 percent of the fund amount is given to the concerned state‚Äôs forest department every year. In the 2009-13 period, Chhattisgarh received tranches of Rs 123.21 crore, Rs 134.11 crore, Rs 99.54 crore and Rs 114.38 crore, respectively.
Misutilisation of the CAMPA fund in Chhattisgarh was first revealed in the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) for 2010-11 and 2011-12. Documents obtained through RTI also give credence to the allegations by petitioner Chauhan, who had complained to the MoEF as well as the governor, CM and Lokayukta of Chhattisgarh before taking the matter to court.
One of the most egregious ways in which the funds were misutilised was through the purchase of luxury vehicles for officials. Documents obtained through RTI reveal that Rs 20 crore was spent merely on the purchase of vehicles between 2009 and 2013. According to the MoEF guidelines, vehicles can be bought only for officials of the rank of Range Officer or below. But most of the vehicles purchased were allotted to officers of higher rank. Moreover, the purchases included a fleet of new vehicles such as Tata Safari and Tata Manza, though the guidelines clearly do not allow it.
According to the CAG report of 2011-12, the state government bought 23 vehicles by using money from the CAMPA fund in that financial year. The report revealed that Rs 20 lakh was spent only on the purchase of two Tata Safaris for the forest minister and the principal secretary (forest). Chauhan calls it an outright plunder of fund money.
In the past five years, money from the CAMPA fund was also used for the construction of at least a dozen lavish bungalows for officers. Located in different forest ranges across the state, these bungalows were allotted to officers ranging from District Forest Officers to Forest Conservators. More than Rs 24 crore was incurred as the construction cost of these residential bungalows as well as other offices.
When the CAG report questioned it, the state government tried to defend the move by referring to the CAMPA guidelines, which allow the government to use fund money for providing basic amenities required for activities under the scheme. The state government used this clause to justify the allotment of bungalows to senior officers, though the guidelines clearly limit this provision only to officials of the rank of Range Officers and below. Three transit hostels were also set up in Durg, Bilaspur and Raipur with Rs 16 crore from the CAMPA fund.
On 8 September 2013, IG (Forest) CD Singh, working under the MoEF, sent a copy of the CAMPA guidelines to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Chhattisgarh, which laid down that the fund cannot be used for activities like renovation, construction, purchase of vehicles, foreign trips and eco-tourism.
Despite the guidelines clearly mentioning that the money should not be used for eco-tourism, a huge amount was spent in this sector as well. According to the PIL, more than Rs 12 crore was spent in the name of promoting eco-tourism. The 2011-12 CAG report also questions this expenditure.
According to the report, the state government used 77,500 hectares of forest land for eco-tourism-related activities even though the Forest Conservation Act prohibits it. Chauhan‚Äôs petition alleges that the funds were used for Raman Singh‚Äôs ‚Äėdream project‚Äô ‚ÄĒ the Jungle Safari Project. Referring to the audit report of 2011-12, the petition claims that a total of Rs 2.4 crore was spent on the project. The audit report had raised serious questions over it.
Chauhan alleges that the Jungle Safari Project was started at the behest of the chief minister only to obtain more money from the Centre, even though the state already had a jungle park called Nandanvan. The Opposition has also criticised Raman Singh over this. Chauhan claims that he complained to the Centre against the misuse of money on this project but no action was taken. ‚ÄúThe apathy of the Centre has emboldened the state government, which now has nothing to fear,‚ÄĚ he says.
A vivid example of this can be seen in another step taken by the state government in a clear violation of the CAMPA guidelines: the displacement and resettlement of 25 villages. In fact, it brings under the scanner the very purpose of CAMPA.
With the objective of efficiently carrying out CAMPA-related activities, the Chhattisgarh government decided to rehabilitate 25 villages coming under the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in 2010. Three villages ‚ÄĒ Rampur, Latadadar and Nawapara ‚ÄĒwere marked for the first round. It was decided that 135 families of Rampur will be rehabilitated 58 km away in Mahasamund district, in a new settlement called Srirampur. To provide housing, agricultural land and other basic amenities, Rs 10 lakh was to be spent on each family. The total amount needed for this was Rs 13.5 crore.
Interestingly, the MoEF had already released a sum of Rs 5.4 crore during 2009-10 for the relocation of the families living in Rampur. Therefore, only Rs 8.1 crore was required from the CAMPA fund. But information obtained through rti reveals that Rs 14.6 crore was released from the fund. By 2010-11, the state government had only spent Rs 81 lakh from the money released by the ministry in 2009 and then the fund lapsed. Thereafter, money from the CAMPA fund was used for the rehabilitation project.
That was not all. Information obtained through RTI shows that Rs 16 lakh was spent on the inauguration ceremony of the new village in June 2012, where Raman Singh was invited as chief guest.
After the MoEF fund for rehabilitation lapsed, the state government had requested the Centre to revive it. But despite filing of RTI applications, there has been no clear response from the state regarding how the money was used. According to a social activist, the state government is aware that sooner or later it will receive the amount from the Centre. He says that until then, the government will keep spending from the CAMPA fund, so that when the rehabilitation fund is finally released, it can spend it on other activities.
The long list of activities involving the misuse of CAMPA funds suggests that the Chhattisgarh government won‚Äôt let go any opportunity to use it for whatever purpose it deems fit. For instance, in January 2012, when five senior officials of the state forest department, including the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, planned a foreign trip, the Chhattisgarh government decided to finance it from the CAMPA funds. This was a clear violation of the guidelines. Soon, many social activists filed RTI applications seeking details of the money spent on the trip, following which the government hastily backtracked and transferred money from the forest department‚Äôs funds for the purpose. Documents reveal that more than Rs 22 lakh was spent on the foreign trip. ‚ÄúIf information had not been sought, a much bigger chunk of CAMPA money would have been pillaged,‚ÄĚ says Chauhan.
The audit report of 2011-12 reveals another instance of the misuse of funds. The Principal Chief Conservator had set aside Rs 15,100 for planting 400 trees per hectare over two years. But in Dhamtari and East Sarguja districts, Rs 52,704 was spent per hectare. It amounted to a total additional expenditure of Rs 2.5 crore. According to the report, the forest department falsely claimed that there was no non-forest land available for afforestation and apparently carried out plantations in areas with dense forest cover. Besides, documents also reveal that the wrong species of trees were purchased at higher rates for plantation, leading to an additional expenditure of more than Rs 1 crore.
When TEHELKA contacted Chhattisgarh‚Äôs Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Ram Prakash, he excused himself by saying that he had been appointed to the post only a few days ago. ‚ÄúI do not have much information. It would be better if you contact state CAMPA in-charge BK Sinha, who has been looking after CAMPA-related activities for quite some time,‚ÄĚ he said. Asked about the PIL in the Supreme Court, he said he did not know about it.
Then TEHELKA contacted Sinha, who said, ‚ÄúAll the allegations regarding misuse of CAMPA money are false. There has been no misuse anywhere.‚ÄĚ As for the PIL, he said the government will present its case before the court.
Chauhan says that the officials actually do not have an answer and ‚Äúthat‚Äôs why they shrug off any blame just by saying that the allegations are wrong‚ÄĚ.
The CAMPA scam could end up being a big blow to the Chhattisgarh government‚Äôs claims of ‚Äúgood governance‚ÄĚ, which had paved the way to the BJP‚Äôs victory in the Assembly election last year. The Supreme Court‚Äôs verdict on the PIL, whenever it comes, could present a different take on governance under the Raman Singh regime. Will the BJP government in Chhattisgarh acknowledge its mistakes and make amends before it is too late?
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman