Thousands of kilos of timber unaccounted in Delhi, finding place in grey market

On June 28, more than a dozen full-grown trees on the road between Indira Gandhi International Airport and Dhaula Kuan were felled with permission from the forest department. But when the timber from these trees was being loaded onto trucks the next morning, an important condition to be followed while cutting a tree in Delhi was missing — a number painted on the timber to prove that it comes from a tree that was chopped with a government clearance.

Environment experts said that when a tree is chopped and the wood hits the road, a painted “seal” from the Delhi government’s forest department is the only one way of distinguishing “legal timber” from a tree that has been illegally hacked.

But forest officials and experts said that this inspection and marking is hardly done.

According to norms set by the forest department, a legally cut tree is supposed to be divided in portions that are to be donated to public crematoriums, while other parts can be auctioned off. However, the timber that is supposed to reach government-run crematoriums frequently finds its way to the grey market in violation of these norms.

Most government agencies, which felled trees between 2014 and 2017 didn’t maintain any proper register or stock to reflect the amount of timber generated, sent to crematoriums or auctioned. A kilo of good quality soft timber fetches Rs10,000-Rs16,000. But thousands of kilos of timber go unaccounted every year in Delhi.

Delhi is yet to formulate a proper transit policy for the trees, which has been due since 1994. Over the last week, Hindustan Times tracked what happens to the timber of trees that are cut in the city and how lack of implementation of rules has led to the growth of an illegal nexus of timber in Delhi.

Lack of marking equipment

An official from Delhi’s forest department is supposed to be present when a tree is legally chopped. Experts said that this official is supposed to mark the tree, which serves as proof that the tree has been cut legally. In fact, if a log is cut into multiple pieces, each piece is supposed to carry this mark.

“The forest department is short-staffed and we can’t conduct inspection of cut trees every single time. We sometimes have to depend of the user agencies which cut down the tree,” said a forest department official who did not wish to be identified. The CAG report of 2017 had criticised the forest department for this laxity.

In an RTI reply in 2016, the forest department had admitted that “no hammers (to mark the trees) were issued” to their forest guards.

“We have on multiple occasions written to the minister to approve proper equipments, but these appeals have gone to deaf ears. The situation is the same with every government. At present, we do not have hammers to mark the bark while it is being cut,” a senior official of the forest department said.

None for crematoriums

To control illegal timber trade in the national Capital, the government has via several notifications ordered that a portion of the wood obtained from the permitted felling be donated to public crematoriums.

However, crematoriums claim that for at least five years no wood as been donated to them and they have been forced to buy it.

In March last year, the Delhi High Court ordered a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit of the forest department’s processes for tracking cut trees and the compensatory money collected.

In permission sanctioned by the forest department, agencies are told to send a portion of the timber to the crematoriums.

“Wood obtained after felling of the tree is to be sent necessarily and handed over to the MCD (the three municipal corporations of the city) public crematoriums and dated receipts may be submitted to the office within a month for records,” (sic) a permission letter for the felling of 75 trees for a road widening project by the Public Works Department (PWD) last year.

Anil Gupta, supervisor of the Nigambodh Ghat said that no wood has been donated by the municipalities to the crematorium. At present, when families have to book cremations they have to pay for the wood. In the cases of unclaimed bodies, the crematorium pays it of its own pocket, Gupta said.

“We have never received free wood from the government. In fact, we have contacted the agencies several times but to no avail,” Gupta said.

PWD officials said that in most cases the wood is auctioned off and this becomes a revenue generation mechanism for the department.

“We have permissions to auction the tree and as per the bid the condition, the highest bidder is supposed to deposit full payment at the time of the bid and the contractor should cut the trees within the stipulated period,” an official said on the condition of anonymity.

Prabhakar Rao, member of Kalpvriksha Environment Action Group, explained that the idea behind ordering donation of the wood to crematoriums from legalised felling was to disincentivise cutting.

“When all the wood has to go to the crematoriums, then that stops the possibility of it being illegally sold off to furniture markets,” he said.

No transit rules

A report by the Union ministry of environment and forest (MOEF) on the felling and transit regulations had found that compared to other states, Delhi had no transit rules that would help spot illegal timber trade.

When HT did a spot check at west Delhi’s Kirti Nagar, one of the biggest furniture markets in the city, Delhi Police officials said there was no way of checking if the wood supplied to these shops were legal or part of an illegal nexus.

“We can only check if the trucks transporting these are overloaded. How can we verify if these are permitted or not?” an official said.

Mursheed Azad, who owns a furniture shop in Kirti Nagar, said that five kilos of the most expensive wood ranges between Rs50,000 to Rs80,000. He said fullygrown trees with a medium girth size such as Pilkhan and Arjun are ideal for timber.

“A few traders order wood together because it is cheaper that way. Where this wood comes from is not really our headache. That’s the supplier’s problem,” he said.

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