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Legality of thousands of forest offence cases hangs in balance

Officials said the confusion stems from the Karnataka Forest Manual, 1976, which permits every Forest Guard and Forester, apart from the RFO, to register an FIR. According to Section 65, officials below the RFO "shall carry" the FIR books and make their reports chronologically.
Last Updated : 02 June 2024, 23:37 IST
Last Updated : 02 June 2024, 23:37 IST

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Bengaluru: Confusion over legal procedures has cast doubt on the majority of the approximately 90,000 cases filed by the Forest Department, prompting Forest Minister Eshwar Khandre to order a meeting with officials from the legal department.

The state government amended the Karnataka Forest Act in 2010 to include Section 62A, which stipulates that FIRs for forest offences can be registered by a forest officer not below the rank of Range Forest Officer (RFO). However, both before and after this amendment, Deputy RFOs have registered thousands of FIRs, primarily concerning encroachment and illegal cutting of trees.

Officials said the confusion stems from the Karnataka Forest Manual, 1976, which permits every Forest Guard and Forester, apart from the RFO, to register an FIR. According to Section 65, officials below the RFO "shall carry" the FIR books and make their reports chronologically.

"The procedure is laid down especially for Forest Guards who ordinarily first discover the offence," according to the manual, which mandates the RFO to personally inquire into at least 25% of cases registered by subordinates.

Sources in the department indicated that courts accepted FIRs filed by RFO subordinates until a few years ago.

"The High Court of Karnataka noted the amendment to the Karnataka Forest Act in 2010 and ruled that FIRs registered by officials other than RFOs were invalid. Although the court did allow the department to take legal action, the ruling has cast doubt on the proceedings in thousands of cases. In some instances, cases for which charge sheets were framed have been dismissed," a senior official said.

This issue was brought to the attention of the Forest, Ecology, and Environment Minister Eshwar B Khandre, who has instructed the department to address the matter immediately. In a letter to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Head of Forest Force, Khandre emphasised that years of work would be wasted if cases are dismissed by default because they were registered by subordinates of RFOs.

"Ensure that from now on, cases are registered by RFOs with the necessary permissions under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code. To get an opinion on the pending cases registered by subordinates of RFOs, convene a meeting with the Legal Department," the letter stated.

Similarly, a lack of legal knowledge has led to the registration of non-cognizable offences without following the proper procedure. This issue was highlighted after the high court quashed FIRs for violation of the procedure, which mandates that such offences should be registered only after obtaining explicit permission from a magistrate as outlined in the Criminal Procedure Code.

The problem is further complicated by the challenges faced by forest officers.

"Unlike a police station where cases are registered after complainants come forward with grievances, foresters usually receive a complaint over the phone. A forest guard or watcher then visits the spot, which leads to the filing of a case. In other words, we verify the incident before taking up the case. We must consider whether an RFO will be able to verify each of these cases. This is a pertinent matter not only due to the vacancy in the posts of RFOs but also because of the other tasks they handle," the official explained.

In response to a query, PCCF (Head of Forest Force) Brijesh Kumar Dikshit stated that the department was examining the issue. "We have received instructions from the minister. The matter will be taken up with the legal department to find a resolution," he said.

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Published 02 June 2024, 23:37 IST

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