Forest department has collected around Rs. 64 lakh in 2020-21 as fine for illegal use of excavators (JCBs) at the riverine sites allotted for surface collection of sand and stones, said additional chief secretary-cum-PCCF M.L. Srivastava to reporters on Wednesday.
Srivastava maintained that collection of Rs. 64 lakh as penalties illustrate the action taken by Forest department against illegal JCB operation on Sikkim rivers. He was responding to “misconceptions in social media” over use of JCBs for quarrying.
The PCCF (Forest), however, added that it was challenging for Forest department to monitor sand and stone collection at every site due to less manpower in the field.
For past few months, the Forest department was under fire from various quarters for allowing alleged “rampant and unsustainable quarrying” through excavators.
Srivastava mentioned that big boulders at the quarrying sites cannot be manually extracted into the trucks. So at certain sites, especially for important government projects, we have given permission to use JCBs for loading the stones on trucks, he said.
“But if the JCB is used for digging on the river, we seize the JCB and impose fines. We have taken action against illegal sand mining and illegal use of JCBs.”
The operation hours of excavators have also been revised to 11 am-4 pm, and using such heavy machines outside this time frame is illegal and liable for penalities.
“We must also understand that we have less number of field staff. We are operating with 50% less Forest Guards than actually required given the vast area of Sikkim that comes under Forest department.
Around 82% of Sikkim is Forest area and it is very challenging for a mere 165 odd Forest Guards to cover this entire area. Despite this we are working very hard. Very soon, we are recruiting more Forest Guards,” said the PCCF (Forests).
Srivastava stressed that permits for collection of sands and stones from riverbeds are issued by following all the prescribed norms.
At the press meet, the senior Forest officials added that controversy over JCBs emerged with the outset of pandemic era in 2020. New health infrastructures were needed including the immediate need to set up a viral lab at STNM Hospital.
“The viral lab for testing Covid samples was a top priority project which needed a constant supply of sand and stones for construction. There were also national security issues and the State government had to support the activities of Defence ministry for roads and infrastructure at the borders.
However, there were challenges to load the materials at the quarry sites and as such, JCBs were permitted to load the stone and sand on transportation trucks,” they said.
“It was a learning curve for us. At most sites, JCBs were used as per norms and proved beneficial. At some sites, JCBs were misused and we imposed fines on the concerned persons. Wherever we were informed, we went to the site and took immediate action,” said the Forest officials at the press meet.
Forest Department: Felling of pine trees as per working plan for scientific management of forests
The Forest department on Wednesday clarified that felling of pine trees in different parts of Sikkim is “silvicultural thinning” as per the department’s approved working plan for scientific management of forests.
There is no rampant felling of trees in Sikkim, said additional chief secretary-cum-PCCF (Forests) M.L. Srivastava in a press meet here. He was responding to allegations of unexplained, widespread tree felling across Sikkim.
“We have prepared a working plan of 10 years for scientific management of forests in Sikkim. The working plan was thoroughly discussed and takes 2-3 years to prepare and is then submitted to the State and Union governments for approval.
After the approval came and as per the working plan, we are presently felling pine trees from our forests where there is dense and congest pine growth.
The thinning of pine forest is as per the working plan for many reasons. Such species are monoculture and do not allow biodiversity growth. We are planning to replace them with indigenous tree species,” said the PCCF.
“Further, trees being removed are to the barest minimum for developmental activities as per the requisite approval and clearances. These shall be compensated by taking up compensatory afforestation as per approved management plan,” said the PCCF.
To a question, Srivastava mentioned that as per the working plan, local stakeholders including JMFCs, EDCs and panchayats are to be engaged and taken into confidence on such activities. However, some may not be aware and we are making efforts to involve these institutions, he said.