Shimla: The felling of trees, even legally, for hydropower and developmental projects, has left Himachal Pradesh's 'green' Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh feeling wilted.
The seven-day winter session of the state assembly that ended last week was dominated by green issues with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) repeatedly attacking the Congress for turning a blind eye to the mass felling of trees, mainly in Chamba and Shimla districts.
The octogenarian, who is at the helm for his sixth term, rejected the allegations by saying that throughout his political career he fought against the logging mafia.
"If I failed to stop the illegal felling, it will be the biggest failure of my life," Virbhadra Singh informed the Assembly.
"Even if a single tree is cut, with permission too, I feel saddened," he added.
The BJP's Ravinder Ravi alleged that illegal felling has increased alarmingly in Chamba district, the home constituency of Forest Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri, while Suresh Bhardwaj raised the issue of felling of trees on private land on the outskirts of Shimla.
Both alleged that the illicit felling on such a large scale was not possible without political patronage.
Defending the government, the chief minister recalled that in the early 1980s the hill state was notorious for timber smugglers.
"There were alarming reports of illegal mass felling of trees in Himachal Pradesh (in 1982-83). At that time I was appointed to this post for the first time by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. She assigned me the responsibility to fight against the tradition of the axe. Otherwise I was not keen to come to Himachal," the Chief Minister said.
"If the government had not dealt with the timber mafia with an iron fist at that time, I don't think any forest could be saved by now."
"Axing trees is a heinous crime. It's a blot on humanity," he said.
Going down memory lane, Virbhadra Singh, who loves to don a traditional round cap with a green flap, said Indira Gandhi used to express concern over mass felling of trees in the Gulaba forests, located in the upper hills of Manali.
"The Gulaba forest was totally wiped out under some logging scheme. At that time Himachal was part of Punjab," he said.
It was on Jan 25, 1971, that the hill state was conferred the status of full state, then the 18th in the country.
"After attainting statehood, there was no felling in Gulaba forests," he said.
"When I became the chief minister (for the first time), Indira Gandhi used to come to Manali. On my every visit to Delhi, she asked me about the height attained by the new saplings in Gulaba forest. You know at higher elevations it takes much time for the trees to go mature. But today, the Gulaba forest is green again," he said.
Hailing the state government's blanket ban in 1986 on felling green trees, the chief minister said it was historical for conserving and safeguarding the forest wealth.
Even the BJP at times praised Virbhadra Singh for imposing a ban on making wooden cartons for packaging apples, the state's main fruit crop.
The chief minister also didn't mince words in informing the assembly that an impartial inquiry would be conducted into the illegal felling.
"I am totally committed for the preservation of nature, for trees and for environment. Nobody would be spared in the illegal green felling. Even if my son is found guilty in such offence, he would also not be spared," he said.
Chamba is rich in biodiversity and it should be protected at all costs, the chief minister said.
He said earlier forest guards used to live in huts located amidst forests. "Now most of the guards are living in villages and human habitats. The condition of the guard huts is deteriorating owing to lack of care. Most of them have been closed."
From Jan 1, 2013, to Oct 31 this year, 5,051 cases of illicit felling were reported in the state out of which 3,906 cases were compounded. Eighty cases were being inquired into by the police and 32 cases are pending in courts, Forest Minister Bharmouri told a news agency.
To protect the forests from the forest mafia, 593 out of 2,026 forest beats have been declared hypersensitive.
According to Bharmouri, the private land owners are allowed to cut any three pine shaped trees, five deodar trees and 10 other tress in a year with the permission of a range officer. For more than 10 trees, the written permission of a divisional forest officer is must.
According to a Forest Survey of India report of 2011, out of the state's geographical area of 55,673 sq km, 3,224 sq km is under very dense forests, 6,381 sq km under moderately dense forests and 5,074 sq km under open forests.