By Waseem Ahmad Shah
PESHAWAR: Scores of forest royalty holders belonging to Kalkot area of Upper Dir district are engaged in a legal battle against alleged illegal distribution of forest royalty of Rs21 million among few individuals instead of the rights holders by the relevant administrative officers. Presently, these royalty holders have been awaiting permission by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief secretary regarding the arrest of two assistant commissioners under the Anti-Corruption Establishment Rules, 1999, as without the said permission these officers could not be arrested.
The distribution of said amount is in violation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Protected Forests Management Rules, 2005, and also contrary to recommendations of two previous inquiry committees` reports.
On the complaints filed by the inhabitants, the KP Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) had conducted an inquiry and subsequently registered an FIR on Nov 28, 2017, at ACE Police Station, Upper Dir, against seven individuals, including two serving assistant commissioners.
The persons charged in the FIR included assistant commissioners Abdul Wali Khan andMohammad Farooq and five private individuals named Ziarat Gul, Abdur Rasheed, lltaf Khan, Sheerinzada and Mohammad Shafiq.
The private suspects charged in the case are accused of receiving forest royalty at the behest of a large number of royalty rights holders claiming that they were attorney holders on behalf of the rights holders, also called as royalty concessionists. This claim was denied by the area people and they had accused these persons of depriving them of their royalty.
After the case was registered initially one of the suspects, Ziarat Gul, was arrested. His bail was initially rejected by the special judge anti-corruption, but was subsequently granted bail by the Peshawar High Court, Swat Bench (Darul Qaza). Similarly, two other accused Sheerinzada and lltaf Khan were granted pre-arrest bail by the special judge anti-corruption.
The two assistant commissioners had also approached the social court seeking pre-arrest bail.
They were granted interim pre-arrest bail, but subsequently both of them requested for withdrawing their pre-arrest bail petitions on technical grounds as under the ACE Rules they could not be arrested without permission of the chief secretary.
In its order announced on April 4, the special judge observed that during arguments for disposalof their petitions it came to fore that both the petitioners were public servants in BPS-17 and in this case permission for their arrest had not so far been granted by the competent authority i.e. the chief secretary as envisaged by clause (b) sub-rule 4 of Rule 4 of the ACE Rules 1999.
The prosecutor categorically stated that no such permission has so far been received from the competent authority for the arrest of the said officers. Afterwards, counsels appearing for the officers requested for withdrawing their respective petitions.
The special judge granted them relief by directing the ACE to provide fair opportunity to the two officers to again approach the court for pre-arrest bail in case the competent authority grants permission for their arrest.
Over a month has passed since the ACE official informed the court that correspondence had been in progress seeking approval for arrest of the two officers. However, the chief secretary has so far not granted any such permission.
The issue surfaced when several of the affected persons had submitted a complaint to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister in March 2016, stating that inhabitants of Kalkot were entitled to 60 per cent of the forest royalty in the area. They alleged that some of the individuals in connivance with theadministration had received royalty of the people on Jan 26, 2016, which was contrary to the prescribed rules.
On the basis of the said complaint the Chief Minister Secretariat issued directives to the ACE`s director to probe the matter. An audit was conducted by a senior auditor of ACE. The audit report provides that the record revealed that Rs21 million was drawn from government treasury and paid to 10 persons claiming to be attorney holders.
The said Audit Report states that Rs12.4 million appears to be embezzled and legal action is recommended for it, while about Rs5.5 million is subject to verification. The report provides that in the audit 70 per cent of verification had been made about Rs2.8 million which was shown to be paid to Mohammad Zarin and Haji Saffar for 480 royalty holders, whereas remaining 30 per cent was needed to be verified.
The KP Protected Forest Management Rules, 2005, provide for mechanism of distribution of forest royalty among the rights holders. Rule 3 (3) provides that the divisional forest officer will issue a cheque in the name of the district revenue officer for the amount of share of the royalty holders out of the sale proceeds. The amount will be distributed by the DRO among the concessionists.
The said Rule in clear terms provides that nopayment through proxies or holders of power of attorney shall be permissible. The acquaintance roll duly verified by the DRO shall be forwarded to the conservator of forests on each occasion the payment is made. The rolls shall be maintained for audit purpose.
In past, the provincial government had twice constituted inquiry committees when such issues emerged. One of such committees, constituted in March 1997, was headed by then district and sessions judge Ziauddin Khattak for determining the rights of forest royalty of the inhabitants of Kalkot and Gawaldai valleys of Upper Dir.
The said committee had declared as illegal the payment of royalty to individuals on basis of power of attorneys. It had also ruled that the royalty paid to inhabitants was not as a right but as a concession, which was not transferable and as such no one could buy it under the law.
Another inquiry committee had also recommended that new agreements of sale and purchase of the royalty should be disallowed because these provided for means of exploitation of the local right holders.
Experts believe that the provincial government should direct the relevant administrative and revenue officers in the forest areas to abide by the Rules so as to avoid such controversies in future. –Dawn
By Waseem Ahmad Shah