No place for honest men in India

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No place for honest men in India

Following the shockwaves over Karnataka IAS officer DK Ravi’s alleged suicide, allegations of threats to him from sand mafia and the powerful real estate lobby who he took action against and the furore in India’s parliament demanding a CBI enquiry into his death, SANDHYA RAVISHANKAR finds out that yet another honest officer is alleging harassment simply for doing his job. Khaleej Times asks if honesty simply does not pay in India

By Sandhya Ravishankar

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Published: Sun 22 Mar 2015, 11:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 9:10 PM

Chennai — Indian Forest Services officer Sampat Lal Gupta is a man distraught and afraid. “I fear for my life and that of my family,” Gupta tells Khaleej Times. “My own seniors and government have created a situation for me where I am compelled to stay silent. If I open my mouth, there will be serious danger to my life and to my family,” he says reluctantly.

Gupta was suspended by the Tamil Nadu government on January 3, 2014. His suspension order states the reason for his suspension as not being ‘courteous’ to his juniors and his senior officers. Another reason given is for not returning his diary and log book to the Forest Department. Gupta insists that he did not receive any verbal or written communication from his senior officers about any discrepancy in his behaviour ever in his career. He says the first time he heard of such a flimsy reason was when he was served his suspension orders.

“I was doing my job and stopping smuggling of red sanders trees,” he says. “Obviously that ruffled feathers.”

Around June 2013, Gupta, then Divisional Forest Officer of Vellore, returned from an official trip to Delhi to find that four acres of forest land had been completely cleared. Precious red sander trees — endangered species — had been felled in large numbers. Gupta says he began an investigation into the violation and gathered evidence to prove collusion of junior and senior government officials — the result — harassment.

“I did not get my salary and subsistence allowance for six months before my suspension,” says Gupta. “Four months of my leave period pay is also pending. Every time I asked, they said there was some technical hiccup. I feel it was deliberate,” he alleges.

“The entire governance has collapsed and moved from democracy to kleptocracy — a government by thieves, of thieves and for thieves,” says MG Devasahayam, retired IAS officer. “Smugglers and criminals are paying politicians for patronage everywhere. Mafia with black money are the ones who are running government. Officials who are honest are at the mercy of the state government. Although the All India Services officers are technically under the protection of the Central government, it is the State that has powers over such officers. And if the mafia is running the state government, can you expect justice?” he asks.

Tamil Nadu’s forests are rich in sandalwood and red sanders trees, both of which are 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 Rs8 million (over $130,000) 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 was seized by customs department officials in Tamil Nadu.

Gupta also alleges that an illegal raid was conducted in his house in Vellore when he was away in Chennai, about 10 days after his suspension in 2014. Gupta’s wife has written a letter in protest to the chief minister on this but no response has been forthcoming.

A forest department official who spoke to Khaleej Times on condition of anonymity though says that Gupta was exaggerating the raid. “We went to get back some documents which are still with him,” says the official. “He has taken them with him, which he is not supposed to do.”

When Khaleej Times asked the Tamil Nadu Minister for Forests MSM Anandan for a reaction to these allegations, he said that it was an administrative issue and that he had no comment to make.

Trouble is not new to Gupta. In 2006 he was transferred abruptly from Sathyamangalam in Erode district of 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.

With the spotlight in India now on the issue of the price for honesty of government officials, Gupta’s case, along with the likes of Ashok Khemka and Sanjiv Chaturvedi, is yet another example of what the system needs to rectify. After all, it takes only a few good men to change the fate of a country.

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