Commando camp on forest land. Why shouldn’t complaint be filed against you in court, Centre asks senior Assam officer.

The environment ministry’s show-cause notice to Special Additional Chief Secretary (Forest) M K Yadava was related to the construction of a commando battalion camp on 44 hectares of forest land in Assam’s Hailakandi district.

The environment ministry’s regional office in Shillong has issued a notice to the Assam government’s Special Additional Chief Secretary (Forest) M K Yadava, asking him to show cause as to why it should not file a complaint against him in court for violation of forest conservation laws.

The notice pertains to the Assam government’s construction of the 2nd Commando Battalion Camp on 44 hectares of forest land in Hailakandi district, which the environment ministry had earlier deemed to be in contravention of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980.

The notice, sent on May 14, stated that Yadava was “deemed guilty” under the Adhiniyam and was liable for punishment as per provisions of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023. Under Section 2 of the Adhiniyam, no state government or authority can issue any order directing the use of forest land for non-forestry purposes without prior permission of the central government.

When questioned about the conclusions drawn by the environment ministry regarding prima facie violation of forest conservation laws, Yadava defended the state’s actions, “The activities have been carried out as per Section 2(B) and they are permissible”.

Under the provisions of the 2023 Rules of the Adhiniyam, the ministry’s Deputy Director General of Forest, Shillong, Imtienla Ao has sought an explanation from Yadava. In case Yadava fails to respond to the notice within 60 days, the environment ministry will proceed with action, the notice said.

Yadava, formerly principal chief conservator of forests, Assam Forest Department, had approved the construction of the 2nd Commando Battalion camp within the Inner Line Reserve Forest in September 2023 relying upon Section 2 (b) of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which exempts certain activities relating to conservation of forests from prior central permissions.

The notice to Yadava came to light as a response to a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by Assam-based environment activist Rohit Chowdhury.

The ministry’s notice to Yadava comes in the backdrop of a site inspection of the 2nd Commando Battalion Camp that the Shillong office carried out in March. The battalion camp, the inspector report had noted, was “large-scale and of permanent structures having a build-up area of 11.5 hectares” and did not have any semblance to any activities which are exempted from obtaining permission under forest conservation laws.

On March 18, the environment ministry had directed the Assam government to stop work on the battalion camp after examining the inspection report of the Shillong office.

Later, on April 13, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote to Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Bhupender Yadav to intervene in the matter and requested that the environment ministry accord a “post-facto” approval to allow resumption of construction of the commando camp.

Sarma said that without the camp, “the protection of that very forest does not otherwise seem possible”. Sarma justified the camp’s construction to Yadav on grounds of national security and encroachment of forests. Giving the context of the 2021 violence on the Mizoram-Assam border, in which six Assam police personnel were killed, Sarma said that a dedicated commando battalion is needed in the region to not only protect forests but also other encroachments in the inner line reserve forest.

However, a March 2024 site visit by the ministry found large-scale, permanent construction covering 11.5 hectares (28 acres), which did not align with permissible conservation activities.

Yadava declined to comment on the notice, saying he would respond directly to authorities. Ministry officials in Shillong confirmed providing information under RTI but were not authorised to discuss the notice’s contents.

It was reported on April 10 that a forest official in Assam allowed construction of a commando battalion unit in a protected forest to purportedly stop encroachments by Mizo people from the neighbouring state of Mizoram.

The move created a furore among local conservationists, compelling the Union ministry to take note and direct the state government, in March, to halt construction immediately.

“It’s unfortunate that a person who was in service for 35 years in Assam Forest Department has no knowledge of The Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan). When the government itself starts violating the law, what moral authority it has got to take action against others for similar violations?,” said Rohit Choudhury, wildlife and RTI activist.

Yadava claimed that he is being victimised as the show cause notice which is a private document was leaked. “I have requested the Ministry to look into the matter,” he said, further questioning, “How can a private notice be leaked? This is unethical.”

Furthermore, the special chief secretary questioned why the Mizoram government has not yet received any notice for encroachment of 5000 hectares of land. Pointing that 6 police officers of Assam sacrificed their lives, Yadava also said, “It seems that there is a vested interest circle against Assam. Why has the Mizoram government not received any show cause notice for encroachment of its land?”

He further raised concerns about the absence of any notice regarding the deaths of police officers, stressing the importance of proper action against the encroachment as well as the claiming of lives of the officers.

The notice against Yadava comes after a probe revealed construction activities spanning 44 hectares of land at Damchera within the Hailakandi district of Assam, which has been designated as Inner Line Reserve Forest. Yadava is subject to penalties as per the provisions of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023.