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February 7, 2018

KP official papers belie Imran’s ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ claims

Top Story

February 7, 2018

PESHAWAR: The official documents of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government strongly contradict claims made by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and its chief Imran Khan regarding the “Billion Tree Tsunami” project, and have also cast serious doubts over the financial transparency of the 12 billion-rupee project.

The PTI Chairman, Imran Khan, had claimed that the KP government had “planted” and “grown” 1.18 billion trees, plants and saplings in the province in a span of months and hailed it as the achievement of a “big challenge”. Many questions were raised about how such a large number was achieved in such a short period of time. However, according to official documents of the KP obtained by The News, around 65 per cent of this number (759 million) was actually counted under the head of ‘natural growth’ of new plants in forests and other areas. The documents show that only 20 per cent, or about 240 million plants, were actually planted whereas 153 million, 13 per cent, were distributed free of cost to the public, with no precise knowledge of their fate. Though the number planted is high, the claim made on various forums by the PTI government, and the party’s chairman in particular, is five times higher than the actual figure planted.

The financial transparency of the project is also called into question by the official documents of the KP, which validate fears raised by the opposition parties and other quarters in the province regarding misappropriation of funds by local influential and government favourites owing to the massive scale of the project and the inability to directly monitor it other than relying on lower staff of the KP Forests Department.

Irregularities have been found in selection of nurseries and procurement, distribution and plantation of saplings in Rs12.5 billion project. Over 300 officials faced suspension and dismissal from service for irregularities and corruption. That only the lower staff of Forests Department was monitoring the entire process has made the affair even more suspicious. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) acted as a consultant for the project besides conducting its third-party audit.

Even more questions are raised at the procurement of the plants since there was no official tender for the project. In this regard, documents show that the government set a price between Rs6 to Rs9 for purchasing plants and saplings, whereas the open market rate for such procurement was up to three times less than this rate, especially when purchasing in bulk.

The opposition had also recorded its vociferous protest in the KP Assembly against the government's data regarding this issue. Also, the then director of the Directorate of Anti-Corruption Department Ziaullah Toru was removed from his post after he acted against the brother of the then chief secretary.

According to the official documents, only 240 million saplings were planted in the province while 153 million were distributed and that too without issuing any tender, as plants were procured at the rate of Rs6 to Rs9 on the basis of ‘First-come-first-served’ basis. Nurseries' owners have different price tags, but they say that the prices are lowered massively when plants are being sold in tens of millions. Most plants procured by the forests department had a market value of Rs2 to Rs5.

Forests Secretary Nazar Shah, confirming the data, said they never claimed planting 1.18 billion saplings and the actual figure was 240 million. Moreover, he said, 153 million plants were distributed free among people and another 732 million had grown naturally in forests due to the government efforts, thus the figure of 1.18 billion was being quoted by adding all the numbers.

Project Director Muhammad Tehmasip admitted that the market price could be low. He said the nurseries' owners' can offer low prices as they have capable manpower and plants in huge quantity. He clarified that since the government had instructed direct purchase from public, the plants were procured directly from public at the rate of Rs 6-9 without any tender because the plants purchased from people were healthy while those of the nurseries were weak and defective.

The Forests Department’s documents show that the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project was launched in 2014. Letter No BTAP/2920, dated December 18, 2017, says that 40 per cent saplings were planted, while the remaining 60 per cent were the result of natural growth: a total of 732 million plants over an area of 309,683 hectares. So the number of planted saplings sown on arid land in official record is 240 million, which too could not be confirmed from independent sources.

The record shows that 153 million free saplings that included Eucalyptus, Poplar, Ber, and Sheesham were distributed among people for plantation at their homes. Some 27m plants were naturally-growing whereas 27 tonnes of seeds were dropped from helicopter. For the 240 million saplings, 80 per cent of them were acquired through private sector nurseries, while new nurseries were developed for the remaining 20 per cent. The price of a plant bought from private nurseries was Rs6-9 each.

Interestingly, the procurement process was also not transparent because of non-issuance of tenders. However, some conditions were mentioned in PC-I for buying the saplings, such as the nursery grower should be local, should own a piece of land for the purpose and the facility should have all the requirements. Furthermore, large land owners were also made part of the process because of uniform sapling price. Saplings were procured from a total of 13,260 persons, who grew their own nurseries. Furthermore, 40 per cent of them were youth, 10 per cent women, 10 per cent senior citizens and 40 per cent other nursery owners.

The documents reveal that the number of saplings procured from each of these nurseries ranged from 25,000 to 1,000,000. Hence, big land-owners and the favourites obtained huge orders under the names of different family members – an issue which echoed in the provincial assembly as well. The process of procurement and plantation was also termed dubious, as there was no committee to monitor it and, in fact, a forester or forest guard was responsible for it. The then director of Anti-Corruption Department, Ziaullah Toru, was removed from his post after he acted over the complaints about the Billion Tree Tsunami, despite the fact that Pervaiz had himself brought him into the KP from Balochistan.

According to the first PC-I of the Billion Tree Tsunami, no person could be issued order for providing more than four units [100,000 trees], but 100 favourite people received orders for over one million (1000,000) trees in clear violation of the law. However, the limit was removed by changing the PC-I after the media reported it.

The Directorate of Anti-Corruption raided the house of Arshad Ali Khan — brother of former chief secretary Amjad Ali Khan. Arshad, a high-ranking government officer, had received order for one million (1,000,000) trees but the quantity found during the raid was far below the order, which angered both the government and the chief secretary, resulting in removal and transfer of Toru. However, he moved the high court where all facts are available.

According to sources, millions of rupees were allegedly paid to the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Chief Minister Khattak, Malik Qasim Khattak and other leaders, while the leaders of some opposition parties were also the beneficiaries who opted to remain silent. The relevant documents show that three persons from Nowshera district of Chief Minister Khattak — Shujaat Ali, Arif Khan and Khalid Khan — got order for one million trees along with Arshad Khan of Mardan, Abdul Samad of Charsadda and Zafar Iqbal of Katlang. On the other hand, ordinary people remained busy in visiting the offices repeatedly.

Meanwhile, the department suspended or dismissed 300 officials from service on account of irregularities and corruption. Another interesting fact is that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (KPPRA) rules were not followed in procurement of 42 species of trees. According to Sections 14 and 14A, issuance of tender notices is mandatory to make the purchase process transparent, get low prices and promote competition. The government fixed the rate of nine inch tube sapling at Rs6 and of five feet plant at Rs9, despite the fact that the same are available at much lower rates in the market. The official documents show that the Forests Department could have obtained millions of trees at lower rates, but the process was manipulated to the benefit of favourites.

These papers reveal that 21 per cent [50.09 million] — largest share of any plant species — of them bought by the Forests Department was Chir for which Rs6 each had been paid, although the same is available for Rs4 in the open market. Similarly, the details of others are given as: Eucalyptus 19 per cent [45.6 million], price paid Rs6, market rate Rs2; Robinia 8 per cent, price paid Rs9, market rate Rs2; Kikar 7 per cent [16.8 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs2; poplar 6.64 per cent [15.94 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs2 or Rs2.5; Acacia modesta 4 per cent [9.6 million], price paid Rs6, market rate Rs3; Shisham 9.6 per cent [9.6 million], price paid Rs6, market rate Rs3; Farash 3 per cent [7.2 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs5; Ber 1.94 per cent [4.7 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs3. Ailanthus 2 per cent [4.8 million], price paid was higher than market rate; Ipple Ipple 1.81 per cent [4.3 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs2; Bakakin 1.69 per cent [4.08 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs3; Deodar 1.58 per cent [3.8 million], price paid Rs4, market rate Rs4; Acacia galuca 1.5 per cent [3.6 million], price paid Rs9, market rate Rs2; Sanatha 1.1 per cent [2.6 million], price paid Rs9, market rate 2; Chilghoza 1 per cent [2.4 million], price paid Rs6, market rate Rs5. Moreover, 1.2 million each of Bauhinia variegata, Oak and Persian pine have also been planted.

A survey conducted by this newspaper shows that some highly expensive plants are also on the list, which were obtained from government nurseries whose number is small. According to the official documents, 27 tonnes of seeds were dropped through a helicopter, provided by the chief minister, in different parts of the province in four days. The process cost Rs1.8 million to the government. However, the government claim of planting 31 million through this method could not be verified.

Twenty-eight forest divisions were selected for the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’, the details of which with the number of trees and the area are: Peshawar 4,525,000, Mardan 6,305,133, Kohat 8,422,861, Bannu 13,198,000, Dera Ismail Khan 12,123,958, Gallis 777,225, Haripur 5,649,175, Hzara Tribal 132,500, Kaghan 1,409,000, Dawar Watershed 14,473,441, Kunhar Watershed 17,587,671, Anhar Watershed 14,412,953, Buner Watershed 18,838,865, Kohistan Watershed 14,697,225; Upper Kohistan 141,025; Lower Kohistan 80,980, Sirin 295,895, Agror Tanawal 5,024,550, Torghar 913,233, Upper Dir 14,331,384, Lower Dir 21,431,000, Buner 9,600,000, Alpuri 10,256,825, Swat 11,283,500, Kalam 5,864,775, Dir Kohistan 5,438,011, Malakand 26,673,987 and Chitral 6,932,187.

According to the Forests Department, the initiative was divided into three phases with a separate PC-I for each of these. Experts hired from different sectors, including land, for each phase – visited the entire province and submitted a comprehensive report to the department, and the plantation and distribution process was carried out only on the basis of their recommendations. It also says that applications were sought for free distribution of plants and the community officers received the applications. Later, the plants were provided to the applicants by organising ceremonies in their respective divisions.

The Forests Secretary Nazar Shah said decayed forests had been rehabilitated through the exercise which was a huge challenge. To achieve the target, they with the cooperation of locals ensured an end to grazing, grass-cutting and collection of firewood as well as prevention of fire and blocking illegal passages through the forests, he added. Shah said the above-mentioned measures resulted in forest growth on an area of 309,683 hectares, checked and measured by the WWF thrice. The preventive steps included growth of 732 million plants and growth of another 27 million due to wild vegetation, he explained. He said plants were planted at a distance of 10x10 feet between each of them in areas experiencing water shortage and 5x5 feet where water was available in abundance.

The provincial secretary also claimed that forests covered 26.3 per cent area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the percentage was more than of several countries in the world, which had been acknowledged at the Bonn Conference. Shah admitted that no tender had been issued for the purpose and the plants were procured from every person. He added that the project was completed at a cost of Rs12.5 billion against the initial estimate of Rs22.5 billion. He said started in 2014, the project would complete in 2020 as the plantation process stands finished, adding that now the plants would be looked after for which 6,509 watchmen have been appointed.

He said the only criterion for selecting a nursery was that it should be located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, no matter from which province the owner belonged to. The ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ initiative was a transparent project which had been checked and praised by different organisations, the forests secretary added.

According to Project Director Muhammad Tehmasip, the KPPRA rules do not apply to the initiative as the contract for provision of plants had not been awarded to a single party. The project was public welfare-oriented and aimed at providing livelihood and ensuring poverty alleviation, as youth, women and elders too submitted applications and millions of plants were bought from them. Tehmasip said the income tax department had exempted the scheme from sales and income tax. The process for receiving applications was transparent, as these were sought through advertisements in newspapers and checked by a committee, while land of applicants was also analysed, he explained.

He said a local watchman had been appointed for every 40 hectares of land at a monthly salary of Rs15,000, being paid by the government. He added that 30 per cent of the payment was made in advance to start nursery with the rest paid in two instalments. The project director said the plants have been selected according to specific environment and geographical locations, and they required three to 50 years to develop into a tree. For example, he said, Eucalyptus, Kikar, and poplar require 10 years to grow strong, while Chir and Deodar 50 years. He described the procurement process as transparent, saying all the record is available and could be checked by anyone, anytime, adding that the officials talso kept monitoring the process. The auditor-general also conducted the annual audit of the project and no major irregularity surfaced, he added.

The WWF-Pakistan Regional Manager Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Syed Kamran, when contacted to get his version, confirmed that 60 per cent plants were naturally growing (wild) through look after of forests, while 40 per cent saplings were planted in the campaign. This also included free distribution of saplings to people. He said awareness should be created among people in this regard. He rejected the impression, given by the government authorities, that 1.18 billion saplings were planted. At least 60 per cent of them were the result of wild growth, he said adding that the WWF had looked into only 20 per cent data of the claimed forests and the number of planted saplings was found correct. Investigating the entire project was not possible practically, he added.

Kamran said WWF was a consultant of the provincial government for this project, and was paid Rs15 million as service charges. He said four teams comprising three members each were constituted, also comprising passing-out students of the Pakistan Forest Institute and Environmental Sciences. These teams visited the enclosures of the newly planted saplings personally. The team members said they visited every sub-division in every division to minimise the chances of error, and the margin of error in counting the saplings could be up to 5 per cent. However, he added, he could give a guarantee that no mistakes were committed in compilation of the data in the report. He said the organisation (WWF) was not responsible for the current ground situation.

Syed Kamran said WWF monitored the forestation campaign from Sept 2015 to July 2017 and collected data in this regard. During this period, the length of deodar and chir plants was recorded 5 to 9 inches during this period. He said deodar plant takes 140 years to become a full-grown tree while chir needs 80 years for the purpose.

When he was asked that when the seeds of these 5-9 inch plant would have germinated, he said that must have happened a few years ago. About the plant counting technique, he said the experts believe that 1,060 plants are found in one hectometre area on the basis of 10X10 plantation. He said such kinds of projects must continue for eight to 10 years to produce the desired results.

He said only 10 per cent of the recipients were surveyed who had been given saplings free-of-cost. They have planted these saplings in their houses and offices. About fixing the price of saplings, he said WWF had no role in it at all, and the government had done it on its own. The division of nurseries was also carried out by the department; however, WWF had also inspected the designated nurseries, he added.

On the other hand, former chief minister Haider Khan Hoti described the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ as a pack of lies and said Imran Khan had never spoken the truth and always misled the people through lies, adding that he was lying for the last four-and-a-half years. He demanded that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) should immediately probe the scandal just like the Malamjabba affairs and punish the culprits.

Hoti described the project affairs as dubious and said plants had been purchased for billions without any tender. He said orders for thousands of trees were issued to people, but the amount was paid after receiving less number of plants. He said free distribution of plants was also a fraud and the people later sold these saplings to others. Imran Khan was acting as a silent spectator despite frequent emergence of scandals in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Hoti added.

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