The cross of courage

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Case Study 1

They dared to do their duty: they have been killed and harassed for it. Tusha Mittal shows why a whistleblowers act is long overdue in India

PERHAPS THERE is a reason why Sanjiv Chaturvedi’s journey begins in the small dusty town of Kurukshetra, for his story is as epic a battle between good and evil, his journey as much a pursuit of dharma. Only, he is the sole Pandava on this battlefront, and he is the one who called the war.

One-man army Haryana forest officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi has exposed widespread malpractices
One-man army Haryana forest officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi has exposed widespread malpractices
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It was during an afternoon walk in April 2007 that Chaturvedi found himself called to duty. He had spent the last six months as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Kurukshetra, his first posting after graduating from the National Forest Academy at Dehradun. He was entrusted with the care of Saraswati Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Haryana’s largest protected areas, home to the rare hog deer, blackbuck and wild boar.

For Chaturvedi, 34, the sanctuary was a temple. As an officer of the Indian Forest Service (IFS), he saw himself as its guardian. That afternoon, he stood motionless when he found himself staring at hundreds of felled trees — babool, neem, eucalyptus — amid rubble and dust. Loud machines and tractors were ploughing through this protected forest with impunity. In blatant violation of the Wildlife Protection Act, a massive canal was being dug through the sanctuary without the mandatory permission.

Chaturvedi immediately issued orders to stop construction. He had FIRs registered against Haryana Irrigation Department contractors and officials for poaching the hog deer, the illegal tree felling and habitat destruction. He also alerted the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden, RD Jakati. But instead of acting against the encroachers, the warden overruled him. The government immediately transferred Chaturvedi. Four years on, Jakati is the Director of National Forest Academy, while Chaturvedi deals with incessant transfers, chargesheets and false FIRs. Four years on, Chaturvedi, the son of a retired electricity department engineer in Uttar Pradesh, lives all alone. He doesn’t know how soon the next transfer could be. Being an upright man has taken its toll.

It would be a mistake though to think of Chaturvedi’s fight as a battle to save a sanctuary here or expose a fraud there. Rather, it is a battle to defend what he holds sacred — the right to perform his basic duty. “We are trustees of the public fund, of these natural resources,” Chaturvedi had once told his brother Rajiv, also an IFS officer in Rajasthan. In four years, Chaturvedi has been transferred 11 times. His longest single stint was seven and a half months. Everywhere he has gone, he has jumped into battle.

In his first posting at Kurukshetra, Chaturvedi earned a reputation for being incorruptible, incapable of greed. That is why he gave orders to stop construction at the 110-km Hissar-Kurukshetra canal despite knowing it was the state government’s pet project. On May 23, 2007, Chaturvedi submitted a report showing alternate routes for the canal without affecting the sanctuary. The next day, Jakati overruled it: “There is no harm in allowing transportation of material through existing roads. Hence permission is granted to transport material through the forest during day time.”

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FACT FILE

FEARLESSNESS IS THE KEY

In his epic fight against corruption, Chaturvedi has challenged the might of Haryana’s powerful CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda and the state’s Forest Minister Kiran Chaudhary.

Chaturvedi opposed the illegal construction of a canal through a wildlife sanctuary, misuse of public funds to import rare plants for a private herbal park, and embezzlement in the name of fake tree plantations.

Top officers of Haryana’s Forest Department have been ranged against Chaturvedi. One officer wrote that his work was ‘not in the best interests of the department’.

In just four years of service, Chaturvedi has been transferred 11 times. After the Haryana government wrongly suspended him, President Pratibha Patil had to intervene and revoke his mala fide suspension order.

For his relentless use of the RTI to fight against a vindictive state that is out to crucify him, Chaturvedi has won a certificate of appreciation from RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal.

For his courage and honesty, Chaturvedi has won an award from the Manjunath Trust, named after the Indian Oil whistleblower who was killed by the petrol mafia in UP in 2005

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Haryana’s Prinicipal Secretary (Forests), HC Disodia, wrote Chaturvedi a letter saying his action was a “misconduct… You are warned not to indulge in such activities in the future”. After Chaturvedi was transferred out, the forest department declared a portion of the canal inside the sanctuary as a “water hole” for wild animals, though it had no water. Then the Haryana government denotified it as a reserve forest land.

In August 2007, Wildlife Trust of India, an NGO, took up the cause and filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court’s Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC). The Haryana government’s defence was that the violations were of a “technical nature and totally unintentional. The State has always acted for better management of the wildlife and the protection of the forest”.

But in its judgement, the CEC said “the construction works were started without obtaining approval under the Forest Conservation Act, in violation of the provision of the Wildlife Protection Act, and without obtaining prior permission from the Supreme Court.” Yet, because the land had been denotified, the CEC saw no ground for action against the guilty officers. The Haryana government was asked to pay a fine of Rs 1 crore and let off.

No minister Hooda (left) and Kiran Chaudhary (right) suspended Chaturvedi but the President set it aside
No minister Hooda (left) and Kiran Chaudhary (right) suspended Chaturvedi but the President set it aside

If you happen to bump into Chaturvedi — lean, well-dressed, amicable, jovial — it is easy to forget the battles brewing in the backdrop. Being a government servant, he refused to talk to TEHELKA, but it isn’t difficult to run into him at Hissar town where he is currently Divisional Forest Officer. He laughs when told he is a warrior of sorts. He has never seen himself that way. For him, it is all about “self accountability.” Perhaps that is why he exudes no sense of burden: Sanjiv is a man at peace. He understands that external motivations will die, it is his own idea of self that inspires him. And yet, this idea of self is so intertwined with the other, it’s as if he has let it down by not fulfilling his external obligation, his role in the world. His family says he refused to seek protection saying it would send “a wrong signal that he is scared.” He told them, “Dharma is doing your duty without cribbing, irrespective of the consequences. I am enjoying myself.”

FROM KURUKSHETRA, Chaturvedi was transferred to the remote town of Fatehabad. Here, he found the department was spending crores buying rare trees and medicinal plants for a ‘herbal park’ being built on private land belonging to the family of a powerful politician, Prahlad Singh GilaKhera, said to be close to Harayana’s Forest Minister Kiran Chaudhary. Chaturvedi halted the work and began investigating the sanction of funds. On July 12, 2007, Haryana’s top forest official, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest JK Rawat, who should have hailed Chaturvedi, instead wrote: “The Honourable Forest Minister [Chaudhary]… was quite annoyed and has asked the undersigned to see that the works resume immediately.”

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‘IT IS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT TO FIGHT THE SYSTEM FROM WITHIN. SANJIV IS THE CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF INTEGRITY’

ANJALI MULLATHI, Co-Founder, Manjunath Trust

‘MANY MORE SHOULD IDEALLY DO WHAT SANJIV IS DOING. HIS STORY MUST MOTIVATE OTHERS TO FIGHT THE SYSTEM’

RITWICK DUTTA, Wildlife Trust of India

SANJIV IS FIGHTING AT GREAT PERSONAL RISK. THERE IS NO INDEPENDENT BODY TO PROTECT FIGHTERS LIKE HIM

ARVIND KEJRIWAL, Pioneering RTI activist

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For this “indiscipline”, the state government suspended Chaturvedi on August 3, 2007. Suddenly, it became a matter of personal dignity: he couldn’t rest until he had proved his innocence. “These are only temporary setbacks,” his brother recalls him saying, “they cannot defeat me.” And Chaturvedi did win. As per service rules, the state government should have sent a formal report on his suspension to the Centre within 15 days. No such report was sent. The order gave no reason for suspension, merely saying: “You are suspended for acts of omission and commission.” He filed an RTI asking the forest department seeking handwritten notes on his suspension file. The department refused saying it would “hamper investigation”. After relentless RTI queries, the State Information Commission intervened to allow him the file notings.

These file notings are shocking and even implicate Minister Chaudhary. First, top forest official Rawat wrote: “It will not be in the best interest of the department to keep the officer at any territorial division where several schemes and projects are being implemented and substantial public dealing takes place.” Chaudhary added: “Keeping in mind his repeated insubordination towards his seniors, the officer may be placed under suspension.” The CM Office first wrote that Chaturvedi be given a chance to explain but did a quick about-turn, and subsequently wrote: “On reconsideration, CM has approved proposal B.”

‘Dharma is doing your duty. Don’t complain despite consequences’

Chaturvedi appealed against his suspension. When the Centre asked the state government for an explanation, there was none. So based on the file notings, his suspension was revoked by a Presidential order in January 2008. But a fake FIR had been registered against him during his suspension, accusing him of criminal intimidation and stealing a Kachnar plant. The theft was shown in Fatehabad in March 2007, when he wasn’t even posted there. The police later withdrew the FIR in court, admitting it was based on “misleading facts”.

The minister said Sanjiv should be suspended for insubordination 

No love lost Haryana Forest Minister Chaudhary at the herbal park that Chaturvedi opposed
No love lost Haryana Forest Minister Chaudhary at the herbal park that Chaturvedi opposed

An NGO Ekta Parishad subsequently filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against the herbal park. Notices were issued to the Haryana government in April 2008. To cover the illegality, the state declared the land as protected forest in February 2009 and transfered its management to the Forest Department. No one was found guilty or punished. Except the man who brought all this to light. After his reinstatement in January 2008, Chaturvedi was kept without a posting for six months. When he was given one, it was below his rank. He moved the Central Administration Tribunal and won.

Helpless, the government posted him as DFO at Jhajjar. Here again, Chaturvedi exposed a scam of over Rs 5 crore spent on fake plantations. He sent out hundreds of his staff to physically count the trees. Subsequently, he suspended nine forest officials, issued termination notices to another 40. Transfers and harassment followed.

Chaturvedi’s house today has empty walls and shelves: the lone fighter of Kurukshetra knows the next transfer is close at hand.

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