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February 15, 2020

Auditor General report says: KP’s Billion Tree Project launched without feasibility study

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February 15, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Auditor General of Pakistan has concluded that physical targets of the Billion Tree Afforestation Project of the KP government were partially achieved, however, the green revolution as promised in the project document proved a far-fetched idea.

In its latest report, submitted to the KP governor, the AG noted that the project planning remained flawed, its cost and timelines kept on changing, public exchequer sustained heavy loss due to higher rates claimed for seedlings in departmental nurseries, ineffective role of Project Management Unit (PMU) in project execution, rangelands and pastures management was abandoned without any justification, eucalyptus was planted in percentage higher than provided in the PC-1 with detrimental consequences for the environment, allocation of funds to various Forest Divisions deviated considerably from the PC-I, issues of project financing adversely affected the project execution and timelines and a lot more.

“Physical targets of the project were partially achieved. The audit team noticed failure of closures in considerably high numbers (35.14 percent) in seven Forest Divisions. Target for woodlots was 30,000 ha (hectares) against which 19,986.5 ha was achieved. Target for Reclamation of Waterlogged & Bad Lands stabilisation was 450 ha for Phase-I and 1950 ha for Phase-II. Data of the Project Directorate revealed an achievement of 290 ha & 13,435 ha for Phase-I & II, respectively,” the report said.

It added, “Audit found that economy of the project was adversely affected by certain issues that pertained to establishment and maintenance of closures. Failure of closures in various Forest Divisions was found in large numbers due to lack of guidance for the field offices and managerial mismanagement. Non-transparent allotment of nurseries to the private growers, higher rates charged for seedlings in departmental nurseries, non-payment for woodlots, procurement of uncertified seeds and overpayment for watch and wards services are other areas that have a direct bearing on the economy of the project.

“The processes and controls adopted for converting inputs into outputs were plagued with some serious issues. Project financing was irregular and adversely affected the project timelines. Budgeting witnessed major deviations from the PC-I allocations. Feasibility study of the project was not carried out which subsequently hindered planning and execution of different interventions. Outsourcing of plantation and rangelands & pastures management was abandoned unjustifiably. Eucalyptus was planted in higher percentages than provided in the PC-I. Monitoring framework failed to produce timely feedback for mid-course correction. No phasing out strategy for the project was prepared to consolidate the gains.”

According to the report, procurement of resources for the project witnessed some serious issues that negatively affected the economy of the project. A large number of closures in all three zones of the forest were denotified. This failure of closures resulted from lack of guidance from PMU to the field offices about the establishment of closures and managerial mismanagement because the management of closures vacillated between Forest Field Offices and Wild Life Department. Closures were 60 percent of the overall project. So, failure of this component puts a big question mark on the results of the project.

Allotment of nurseries to the private growers was not transparent. Similarly, in departmental nurseries exorbitant rates were claimed for seedlings raised therein. Several Forest Divisions charged higher rates for watch and ward services over and above the PC-1 rates. Seeds for the project were procured without certification. PC-1 of the project gives only sketchy details about the procurement of these resources. The Forest Field Staff was left on their own without being given elaborate and clear guidelines for the acquisition of the needed inputs for project implementation.

Feasibility study of the project was not carried out. Project financing remained erratic, budgeting was flawed and project accounting was not properly deployed as a tool of internal control. No operational plans were prepared for technical interventions like rehabilitation of degraded watersheds, rehabilitation of bad sites, reclamation of saline and water logged areas. Monitoring framework was put in place but it failed to produce timely and accurate information for mid-course correction. The three tier monitoring system, outlined in the PC-I, was not employed with due diligence to generate timely and useful information for keeping the field activities on track. All these were the results of poor planning for which P&D Department must be held responsible. By empowering the Project Steering Committee headed by Secretary Environment to change the PC-I provisions, the P&D Department shifted the authority and responsibility to the executing agency which resulted in the absence of continuous monitoring and stock-taking by the P&D Department.

These issues compromised the integrity of the processes and internal control framework adopted for maximising the outputs vis-à-vis inputs. These issues were the result of ineffective role played by the Project Management Unit. Its key roles of coordination and strategy formulation were put on the backburner. The Field offices were kept under the control of the administrative department and the Project Director functioned as a compromised head of the project. The Project Management Unit remained understaffed. In the absence of required staff and efficient Project Management Unit, the processes and internal controls could not produce the desired results.

Although reforestation and afforestation were the two main components of the project, several other interventions like watershed management, reclamation of waterlogged and saline area and badland stabilisation too were part of PC-I. However, for these specialised interventions the capacity of field staff was not up to the mark and therefore, outputs could not be either achieved or were underachieved. Closures were denotified but the fact was not reflected in the reports and accounting record.

Eucalyptus was planted more than the approved 10 percent. For Phase-1 the excess percentage of eucalyptus was 7 percent while for Phase-II it was 34 percent. In a country like Pakistan facing severe scarcity of water, this might prove disastrous in the long run because eucalyptus affect the water table badly. Although, it helped to achieve the required quantity of plantation but the quality of plantation stands grossly compromised and the long-term impact of the project may prove disastrous in ecological terms.

The report said that during audit of the Billion Tree Afforestation Project it was noticed that the project planning remained flawed. Resultantly, the project timelines and cost kept on changing. According to the PC-I for Phase-I, the project was to be implemented in two Phases. Phase-I would cost Rs1,912.0 million and would be completed in 1 year. Phase-II would cost Rs12,422.72 million and would be completed in 3 years. However, the cost and time period of the project was considerably changed.

During audit it was also noticed that certification of seeds was not carried out from Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department, Islamabad by the Forest Field Offices before purchase of seeds. This violation of set procedure for seed collection has a direct bearing on the growth and quality of seedlings to be planted during the project.

The report said that the public exchequer sustained heavy loss due to higher rates claimed for seedlings in departmental nurseries. According to the PC-1, the rate of Rs9/per plant will be paid to the private grower for bare rooted nursery. However, for the same bare rooted plant grown in the departmental nursery Rs16.63/ per plant was allowed to be drawn by the Divisional Forest Officers, which they drew. This discrepancy of Rs7.63/per plant has been pointed in the regularity audit by the Directorate General Audit, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Subsequently, instructions were issued to the field offices for recovery of overpaid amount of Rs299.29 million.

It was envisaged in the PC-I that youth and women will be provided job opportunities and long term entrepreneurship will be developed in this particular area of forestry. However, upon inquiry no single example was provided where the private nursery growers have adopted the raising of nurseries as a permanent profession. In the absence of detailed guidelines and well chalked-out mechanism, the process of allotment of nurseries is far from being transparent.