Forest dept officials find ways to skirt transparency

Tree park at Hennur, Outer ring road in Bengaluru on Saturday. DH Photo/ B K Janardhan

In a move that exposes the corrupt underbelly of the Forest Department, an inquiry committee has recommended criminal cases against 13 officials, including two IFS officers, for violating the transparency rules under the KTPP Act in the planning and execution of projects.

The irregularities in the Bengaluru Urban division date back to 2015-16. The violations came to light after the Conservator of Forests (Projects), Sudarshan G A, inspected the development works at the Hennur Tree Park. He filed a report flagging misappropriation of funds in the execution of several projects, which caused a loss of Rs 1.44 crore to the public exchequer.

As per the four-member inquiry committee, the accused have initiated and paid bills to contractors for works that were either less than what was on paper or without the prior sanction from the forest department. The committee also called for a detailed inquiry to ensure that there is no ‘selective naming’ of offenders.

The final report submitted to the Additional Chief Secretary (ACS) of Forest Department, Sandeep Dave, names Chief Conservator of Forests, S Shanthappa and Deputy Conservators of Forests, Dipika Bajpai and Kumar H R, responsible for the lapses.

The report says Shanthappa accepted and sanctioned bids for tenders floated without technical specifications, and sanctioned estimates. This is mandatory as per Section 6 of the Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurement Act, 1999, and Rule 11(1) of the KTPP rules, 2000.

Interestingly, the work order was given to contractors without the department’s ‘Annual Plan of Operation’ and ‘sanction of estimate for the work’. Tenders were “formulated, invited, evaluated, recommended and accepted without specification and dimensions of any item of work”, it says.

According to the report, in one of the projects, for the construction of a 650-metre walking path in the north side of the Hennur Tree Park, Shanthappa sanctioned Rs 58.12 lakh, though he was not empowered to sanction more than Rs 50 lakh, as per the Chief Conservator of Forest’s financial power in 2015-16. Moreover, the documents were never technically scrutinised by the PWD authorities, which was mandatory.

While Kumar was held responsible for issuing work orders without necessary clearances, Dipika Bajpai was accused of making “unnecessary payment without any reason or necessity”. In one case, she has been charged with causing a loss to the government to the tune of Rs 15.18 lakh.

Besides the Rs 1.44 crore loss, the committee expressed concern about the pattern adopted to sidestep the transparency rules. “There seems to be a systemic failure in addressing issues of financial appropriation and similar cases are likely in other divisions too. Hence, it is suggested that test cases can be taken up at other divisions too,” the committee said.

When contacted, Dave confirmed that he has received the report recently. “It is a voluminous report that needs to be examined in detail. I will go through it and take necessary action very soon,” he said.

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Forest dept officials find ways to skirt transparency

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