Suspended for two long years and forced to run from pillar-to-post for relief, Tamil Nadu cadre Indian Forest Services officer Sampat Lal Gupta has finally been vindicated. In a letter dated 29 December, 2015, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest has informed the state government of Tamil Nadu that "the Central Review Committee... recommended revocation of his suspension". The letter goes on to request the Tamil Nadu government to "revoke the suspension of Shri Sampat Lal Gupta, IFS, TN:97, with immediate effect and adhere to the extant rules/guidelines and complete all the disciplinary proceedings initiated/pending against him within prescribed time limit."
But close to two weeks have gone by, with the Tamil Nadu government yet to follow the Centre's directions.
Gupta though relieved says that the battle is not over yet. "This is a belated and partial justice given to me," he said. "It is not complete justice. My fight for complete justice will continue."
Gupta was suspended by the Tamil Nadu government on 31 December, 2014 when he was District Forest Officer (DFO) in Vellore. His suspension came a few months after he took action against errant forest department officials allegedly in cahoots with the red sanders smuggling mafia. Around June 2013, Gupta returned from an official trip to Delhi to find that four acres of forest land containing red sanders had been completely cleared.
Red sanders are an endangered species and it is illegal to fell them. Gupta launched an investigation into the violation and alleges that his harassment began when he gathered evidence to prove collusion of junior and senior government officials. His representations to government show that he did not receive his salary for six months following the crackdown — the state government appears to have blamed it on an administrative fault.
His suspension order borders on the bizarre — flimsy charges such as him being late by 15 minutes for a meeting, for not being 'courteous' to juniors and seniors, and not giving log book and diaries to the department for three months.
Firstpost has in its possession, documents showing the reports made by Gupta to the Principal Secretary of Environment and Forests in the state government. In that he claims that the suspension order against him was "deliberately precipitated and engineered, with the help of corrupt government staff and corrupt forest contractors... who not only connived with the smugglers of red sanders, but also helped the encroachers in grabbing government land." The report goes on to state that "no action was taken by the CF (Conservator of Forests), Vellore and the PCCF, Tamil Nadu, to curb such dangerous and illegal activities, even after submission of my written reports."
"I have been kept on suspension for two years for doing my duty towards the nation and towards Tamil Nadu," said Gupta.
Less than two weeks after his suspension order arrived, Gupta, who was posted in Chennai while on suspension, received a frantic call from his wife who was in Vellore. Gupta alleges that a posse of forest department officials along with police had arrived to "raid" his residence in Vellore. When his wife asked them for a search warrant, the group left without showing her one.
The principal secretary in the state forest department could not be reached for comment, despite calls and messages. No probe has been ordered into the allegations mentioned in Gupta's report either by the state government.
The spotlight turned on red sanders smuggling in April 2015 following the encounter deaths of 20 men from Tamil Nadu for alleged red sanders smuggling in the forests of Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh. The forests bordering Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are rich in red sanders trees, endangered species with a ban on their felling. While locally red sanders does not fetch a good price, internationally the wood is in much demand as it is a key ingredient used in cosmetics, medicines and is prized for its hardiness when made into furniture. The wood sells for up to Rs 80 lakh per tonne in some Asian countries, while it fetches only a quarter of the amount within India. In 2013-14 alone, 42.32 tonnes of red sanders were seized by customs department officials in Tamil Nadu.
In 2006, Gupta was transferred abruptly from Sathyamangalam in Erode district in Tamil Nadu, within just eight months of a crackdown on sandalwood smugglers. Gupta had, at the time, arrested 15 persons including personnel of the Special Task Force, who are meant to protect the forests but helped smugglers instead. Gupta paid the price for cracking down on the sandalwood smuggler-politician nexus.
Will the Tamil Nadu government, at least now, order a probe into red sanders smuggling in the state? An enquiry is likely to reveal an intricate web of corruption and collusion, with the red sanders mafia functioning boldly with the blessings of officials and politicians alike. Who will bell that particular cat, is the million dollar question.
The author tweets @sandhyaravishan