Field visits conducted by The Indian Express in 20 villages in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur Districts, showed that that most Gram Panchayats had “distributed” the saplings they were asked to plant. Many couldn’t show the locations of planted saplings.
While the state government is claiming to have not only achieved but exceeded the target of planting 33 crore trees in the state as part of the three-month-long ‘Green Maharashtra’ drive — which ended on September 30 —a substantial part of the evidence to support this claim is missing from the state Forest department’s portal. Information shows that gram panchayats — which as per government claims planted 8.64 crore saplings — have not uploaded geographical tags and pictures to support the plantation numbers. In Pune Division alone, Gram Panchayats have not uploaded geo-tags and photographs for as much as 87 per cent of purported tree plantations.
The state forest department had created a special portal to monitor the tree plantation across the state by over 59 agencies. It was made mandatory for every agency to geographically tag the plantation sites and take pictures of the site and the saplings before and during the plantation, to ensure that the plantation has indeed been carried out.
According to the government website, 34.54 crore trees have been so far planted in the state with geographic tagging and the target has been surpassed with a 104.68 per cent plantation.
The Indian Express examined the tree plantation data uploaded on the Forest department’s portal for five districts of Pune division and found that while it has been claimed that gram panchayats in five districts — Pune, Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur and Solapur — have planted a total of 1.7 crore saplings, the panchayats did not provide any evidence for the plantation of as many as 1.49 crore trees (87.65 per cent) that they purportedly planted. The sites of these plantations have not been geographically tagged and pictures depicting preparations for the drive (such as photos of dug pits) or those taken during the plantation drive have not been uploaded, raising questions if these trees were indeed planted.
As per the data, in Pune District, the government claims that Gram Panchayats planted 42,33,227 trees. No evidence (geo-tagging, pictures) has been provided for 26,65,687 trees. In Solapur, the government says it planted 29,39,747 trees, but no evidence is uploaded for 27,79,747 trees. In Sangli, where the Gram Panchayat plantation claim is 22,18,170, no geotagging has been done for plantation sites where a total of 18,68,039 trees have purportedly been planted. In Kolhapur, where the Gram Panchayat is said to have planted 32,93,590 trees, the portal has been updated with no evidence for as many as 32,78,135 trees. In Satara, the government claim is 43,24,488 plantation via Gram Panchayats but evidence for only 550 sapling plantation has been uploaded with no geo-tags or pictures for rest 43,24,938 trees.
When reached for comment, Maheep Gupta, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and co-ordinator for plantation drive by Gram Panchayats, told the reporter to speak to Chief Conservator of Forest (Pune) Vivek Khandekar.
Khandekar said the anomaly could only be explained by the gram panchayats concerned or zilla parishad officials of the districts in question.
“We merely provided a platform for various agencies to upload the data and the pictures, geo-tags. If they did not upload the pictures and geo-tagged the plantation sites, only the gram panchayat officials or Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of zilla parishad concerned can provide an explanation. All I can talk about is the trees planted by forest department in Pune circle,” said Khandekar.
The Indian Express spoke to gram panchayat officials in about 20 villages in Pune, Sangli and Kolhapur and asked them about the drive and reasons for failure to upload the pictures and geograhpical tags on the portal.
According to them, the target given to each gram panchayat this year (average target per panchayat was 3,200) for tree plantation was “too high” and due to lack of funds for the drive, officials chose to “distribute” most of the saplings among farmers and school children asking them to plant them at home or farm. They said that planting 3,200 trees would have required about “Rs 70, 000 to Rs 1 lakh” for hiring machines to dig the pits and pay wages to labourers for planting the saplings. “The Forest department has made no arrangements for grants towards this expense. It has to be borne by the gram panchayat. Most of the gram panchayats have very little revenue and can’t spare the money for this scheme,” said a gram panchayat office bearer at Palus taluka in Sangli district.
“We had planted about 50 trees in the primary school premise. Rest were given away to farmers and school children,” said a gram panchayat official at Kanwad village in Shirol taluka of Kolhapur district.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Forest department official said that gram panchayats were not supposed to “distribute” the saplings but to plant them. “We have several other schemes and departments that are involved in distribution and sale of saplings. This scheme is about planting the saplings and to ensure that they survive,” said the official.
Kolhapur, Sangli among top performers in Pune division
Though Kolhapur, Sangli districts were in news for devastating floods in August, but according to data provided by the government on the portal, they were among the top three districts in Pune revenue division (along with Satara) to have achieved 100 per cent tree plantation target.
According to the portal, Kolhapur planted 1.13 crore trees between July and September 2019 (100.47 per cent of its target), Sangli planted 75.23 lakh (104.06 per cent) and Satara planted 1.26 crore trees (101.65 per cent) during the same period.
Forest department officials said that since the plantation drive started on July 1, it was possible that the plantation was done before the floods wreaked havoc in the districts in the first week of August.
Residents of several villages in Shirol taluka of Kolhapur and Palus in Sangli — where the floods caused worst devastation — said that even the “50 or 100” saplings that were planted in their villages before the floods by gram panchayats were either washed away or wilted afterwards as they were submerged in water for several weeks.
At Bramhanal in Palus taluka where 17 people had died during floods after a boat carrying rescued villagers had capsized, local residents said that 50-odd trees that the gram panchayat had planted have either disappeared or wilted after floods.
“The water was 15 to 20 feet high. All the houses were submerged. The saplings that were planted by the gram panchayat and were not washed away, have wilted,” said Arvind Chougule, a resident of Bramhanal.