Gangtok: For the past few months Sikkim’s Forest department was under fire from various quarters for allegedly allowing “rampant and unsustainable quarrying” through excavators.

The Forest Department Wednesday organised a press conference and claimed that it has collected around Rs. 64 lakh in 2020-21 as fine for illegal use of excavators (JCBs) at the riverine sites allotted for surface collection of sand and stones.

Additional chief secretary-cum-PCCF M.L. Srivastava said the collection of Rs 64 lakh as penalties illustrate the action taken by the forest department against illegal JCB operations.

He claimed it was challenging for the forest department to monitor sand and stone collection at every site due to less manpower in the field. “Big boulders at the quarrying sites cannot be manually extracted into the trucks. So at certain sites, especially for important government projects, we have given permission to use of JCBs for loading the stones on trucks. But if the JCB is used for digging on the river, we seize it and impose fines. We have taken action against illegal sand mining and illegal use of JCBs,” he said.

The operation hours of excavators have also been revised to 11 am-4 pm, and using such heavy machines outside of this time frame is illegal and liable for penalities.

“We must also understand that we have less number of field staff. We are operating with 50% less Forest Guards than actually required given the vast area of Sikkim that comes under the Forest department. Around 82% of Sikkim is forest area and it is very challenging for a mere 165-odd forest guards to cover this entire area. Despite this, we are working very hard. Very soon, we are recruiting more forest guards,” said the PCCF.

Srivastava stressed that permits for collection of sand and stones from riverbeds are issued by following all the prescribed norms.

At the press meet, senior forest department officials added that many of the sand and stones collected were used for government projects.

“New health infrastructures were needed, including the immediate need to set up a viral lab at STNM Hospital. The viral lab for testing Covid samples was a top priority project which needed a constant supply of sand and stones for construction. There were also national security issues and the state government had to support the activities of Defence ministry for roads and infrastructure at the borders. However, there were challenges to load the materials at the quarry sites and as such, JCBs were permitted to load the stone and sand on transportation trucks,” they said.

Elsewhere, on allegations of rampant deforestation in Sikkim, the department clarified that felling of pine trees in different parts of Sikkim is “silvicultural thinning” as per the approved working plan for scientific management of forests.

There is no rampant felling of trees in Sikkim, clarified Additional chief secretary Srivastava.

“We have prepared a working plan of 10 years for scientific management of forests in Sikkim. The plan, that was thoroughly discussed, takes 2-3 years to prepare and is then submitted to the state and Union governments for approval. After the approval and as per the working plan, we are presently felling pine trees from forests where there is dense and congested pine growth. The thinning of pine forest is as per the working place for many reasons. Such species are monoculture and do not allow biodiversity growth. We are planning to replace them with indigenous tree species.”

“Further, trees being removed are to the barest minimum for developmental activities as per the requisite approval and clearances. These shall be compensated by taking up compensatory afforestation as per approved management plan,” said the PCCF.

To a question, Srivastava mentioned that as per the working plan, local stakeholders including JMFCs, EDCs and panchayats are to be engaged and taken into confidence on such activities. However, some may not be aware and we are making efforts to involve these institutions, he said.

Also read: Eastern Army Commander visits forward areas in Sikkim

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