By Y Satyanarayana

Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst -- Kipling

Who would ever have thought that Telangana CM, KCR’s pet project and one of the flagship programmes of the state government could get hijacked by the coal mafia? This unlikely eventuality was reported by Sakshi on its front page a few days ago. According to the report, the KCR government’s celebrated go-green initiative, Haritha Haram, has fallen prey to the unbridled greed of the coal mafia. While on the one hand, the government has well-meaning plans to expand the forest cover of the state from 24% to 33%, the coal mafia on the other, seems to have seen a money-grubbing opportunity in this mission. And this only underscores the fact that the underlying decadence of a system such as ours is so deeply entrenched that the best of projects and initiatives with the noblest of intentions can be subverted by human avarice.

While this time around, the government aims to get 230 crore saplings planted and nurtured, the report points out that thousands of trees are being charred to coal, defeating the purpose and blackening the very objective which drives the mission. Would it surprise anyone to learn that forest cover, could actually be getting depleted, despite the government’s pro-active interest in promoting Haritha Haram as one of its prestigious missions?

The axing has been relentless. Giant trees along highways which must be centuries-old, have not been spared, the report points out. And the scale is simply staggering. How can one explain coal being ferried in trucks to other states and regions, about a thousand of them from Nalgonda district alone? Why is the Forest department issuing permits to these trucks without verifying whether the coal they are carrying is made from charring thumma or babool (Acacia Arabica) which is legally permitted, or not? It may be relevant to point out that the transport of thumma or babool trees has been permitted by the government. However, this regulation in this instance, has been been brazenly circumvented by the avaricious coal mafia. The reckless hacking of trees is not confined to thumma alone, but extends to tamarind, neem and banyan trees, which should set alarm bells ringing.

According to Sakshi’s exclusive report, about 135,000 cubic metres of coal is transported from Nalgonda district alone with the permission of the forest department authorities with each truck carrying 135 cu mt of coal in 200 bags of about 40 kgs each. In one instance, the report stated, local forest authorities at Yadadri had intercepted a truck ferrying coal which as it turned out carried the permit of the Nalgonda district authorities.

If one district is home to depredation of such magnitude, one can imagine the number of trees being axed across the state! And almost inevitably, one thing is linked to another. The mushrooming of coal furnaces in many places is yet another matter of concern. The report also cited the deleterious environmental impact of the widespread pollution caused by furnaces built to char wood into coal.

Reckless axing of trees along highways, fields and in forests, is continuing unchecked in some parts of the state with coal contractors quickly moving in for the kill in the manner of wild predators. If this continues unabated, one can imagine where we are headed! The districts most affected by this menace are reported to be Nalgonda, Karimnagar, Warangal, Mahbubnagar and Medak. The coal from these districts finds its way to markets in Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Kurnool, Nellore and other places, and is sold for a price much lower than that which is extracted from mines. Correspondingly and quite unsurprisingly, the demand for it is constantly high.

Is it official complicity or not plain indifference which is allowing this trade to flourish? In the past the government had constituted committees comprising officials drawn from revenue, forest and police departments, along with village-level committees for the conservation of natural resources. Clearly, it is official apathy which emboldens elements out to exploit our natural resources.

Yes, it is true that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and so it should come as no surprise to us that the most well-crafted policies with the loftiest ideals get completely subverted. After all, we have heard of life-saving drugs being adulterated in our country! As for food substances, the laundry list continues to grow frighteningly long. Neither milk, nor fruits, flour, turmeric and not even chilli powder -- virtually nothing seems to escape the ingenuity of those who specialize in this nefarious trade. Political venality, bureaucratic apathy, a proverbially short public memory, excruciating delays in the judicial process, a huge, gullible consumer market and a complete lack of awareness or vigilance, have all contributed to the current state of affairs.

Before the situation worsens, officials at the higher levels, need to crack the whip on the offenders who seem to threaten the government’s mission aimed at protecting the environment and also on those within the system who seem to be either indifferent to what’s happening, or are complicit in it.

As a race, human kind has been blissfully ignorant of the hazards and impact of the environmental havoc it has wrought over millenia. It is at our own peril that we can continue to be blinkered and apathetic in our approach to issues, which not merely eat into the vitals of the system, but threaten the environment at large.