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The Jammu & Kashmir High Court has admitted a case against state’s top functionaries, including chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. The decision was based on a petition that accused Mr. Azad and his three forest lessee brothers of fleecing the State Forest Corporation (SFC) and subverting the system of extracting and supplying timber to the market. It said the CM’s deceased father, Rehmatullah Bhat, owed Rs 60 lakh to the SFC. His brother Ghulam Ali also owes a huge amount to the corporation.

Petitioner Ghulam Hasan Marazi, one of the two officers whose dismissal from service was recommended after a secret probe conducted by B R Kundal, chief secretary, says the crisis started within days after he was appointed as GM (R&D) in SFC in March 2007. Mr. Azad’s brothers Mustafa sought allotment of compartments 27 and 28 Chirala for extraction and Sajad wanted allotment of compartments 12, 17, 18, 19 in Padder and 58, 59, 65 in Neeru. Since contractors do not have the authority to identify the belts for extraction, the pleas were rejected.
Moreover, they had not extracted the timber from areas allotted to them since 2004, and were seeking rates for extraction to be hiked by 100 - 150% retrospectively. That was why the forest contractors in Jammu - mainly Azad’s brothers Ghulam Ali, Mustafa and Sajad and close relatives of Congress leaders - boycotted SFC tenders for three million cubic feet in April and May last. Jammu contractors led by the Azad brothers met the CM and wanted some changes in the tenders. The CM sought a report from the SFC. Over onefourth of J&K’s forests (20,230 sq km) are in Doda, Mr. Azad’s district. Owing to inaccessibility, the extracted timber is transported through Chenab. Rise of militancy after 1990 witnessed skyrocketing of claims that a huge quantity of extracted timber was either lost in floods or burnt in mysterious fires. Usually the blame would go to ultras.

The SFC would pay for extraction and then never get the timber. By the end of 2000, it lost timber worth Rs 52 crore in floods, fires, pilferages and thefts. It was only in 2005 that the officials found out that there was actually a nexus between the forest officials and the contractors.

The petitioner claimed that he had filed criminal cases against the Azad brothers for malpractices. The “crisis” took such a strange turn that on September 2, Mr. Azad stripped PDP’s Qazi Afzal as forest minister. Then he ordered the attachment of Marazi. B R Kundal, then financial commissioner (Home), probed the issue and submitted his report, suggesting dismissal of the SFC MD and Marazi, besides pointing out 20 cases of embezzlement and fraud against 17 officials. Apart from seeking quashing of the attachment order, the petitioner has sought an investigation by a committee of experts. The case has been posted for December 27.

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