Curated By: Poulami Kundu
Last Updated: February 07, 2024, 11:43 IST
Uttarakhand Congress leader and former Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat. (File photo)
Probe Agency Enforcement Directorate (ED) conducted raids at spots linked to Uttarakhand Congress leader and former Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat on Wednesday
Financial probe agency Enforcement Directorate (ED) conducted searches against Congress leader and former Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat and a few others as a part of a money laundering investigation linked to an alleged forest scam case.
Official sources said the searches were carried out at over 16 premises in Uttarakhand, Delhi and Chandigarh from 5:30 am on Wednesday.
Rawat had quit the BJP ahead of the 2022 Uttarakhand assembly polls and joined the Congress. The alleged forest scam case relates to the alleged felling of thousands of trees, financial irregularities, and illegal construction in the Pakhro Tiger Reserve range of Corbett National Park in 2019. The same was a pet project of Rawat when he was the forest minister in the then BJP government.
During Rawat’s tenure, the BJP-led government sought approval from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change for the construction of a tiger safari in Pakhro. Around 106 hectares of forest land were allocated for the project during the fiscal year 2019-20. However, it was later discovered during an investigation that a significantly higher number of trees were cut during the implementation of the project.
The matter was brought to the Nainital High Court, and in October 2021, the court took suo motu cognizance of the case. Following this, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed an FIR in 2023, which was later taken over by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The investigation revealed that approximately 6,903 trees were cut, far exceeding the initially reported 163 trees.
The initial inquiry by the Uttarakhand Forest Department, conducted in collaboration with the Forest Survey of India (FSI), uncovered irregularities in the cutting of trees for the project. The FSI report indicated that legal authorization was granted for the felling of 163 trees, but an additional 6,903 trees were illegally cut. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took notice of the case in October 2022.
In October 2022, the NGT initiated a probe into the matter, forming a three-member team comprising senior officials from the wildlife department, Project Tiger Department, and the forest Department. The seriousness of the case led to the inclusion of senior officers in the investigation. After the inquiry, the committee submitted its report to the National Green Tribunal in March 2023.
The report detailed the illegal activities carried out in the name of construction and implicated responsible officials, including the then Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat, and eight senior officers from the forest department. Based on this report, action was taken against officials, including the suspension of Ranger Brij Bihari, DFO Kishan Chand, and Chief Wildlife Warden JS Suhag.
In 2022, the Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Harak Singh Rawat from the party for six years due to his alleged involvement in anti-party activities. Subsequently, before the assembly elections, Harak Singh Rawat joined the Congress party. In 2016, Harak Singh Rawat and ten other legislators revolted against the then Chief Minister Harish Rawat, leading to their defection to the BJP.