Thursday December 02, 2021

Locust attack used as excuse to cover up Ten Billion Tree Tsunami scam

July 14, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Even the undisputed feather in the PTI government’s cap -- the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami (TBTT) project-- is now getting mired in controversy, while the prime minister, who is also the party chairman, is not being presented the true picture. The celebrated scheme faces wide-ranging allegations of corruption in Punjab amid disturbing reports of bogus billing, fake plantation, poor quality earthwork, unauthorised payments and more.

To cover up the corruption, the authorities are being told that the afforestation and reforestation campaign under the TBTT project has been damaged by the ongoing locust attacks. Following complaints of massive corruption in the project, the Forestry Department, Punjab, constituted an official committee on June 10 to probe “the large-scale damage to afforestation carried out under the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami programme by the locust attack”.

The committee was assigned to complete its task within 15 days but for unknown reasons it was unable to even start work. On June 30, the Forest Department issued another order for the dissolution of the earlier committee and the setting up of a new probe team.

Official sources said that the earlier committee was far more competent, but it was not allowed to start the probe. As for the second probe committee, the same sources said that it too has not yet started work, although it was also given 15 days to complete its task. The sources allege that Forest Department officials are involved in the scam and are therefore sabotaging a fair probe into the TBTT project.

Serious complaints have been received about the project’s implementation in Bhakkar and Chakwal districts and DG Khan division involving huge levels of corruption. Sources in the Forest Department confirm that these complaints are not only true in the case of the regions mentioned earlier but the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project has been seriously compromised by corruption and poor implementation in the entire province.

In the three areas mentioned, it is said that against a plantation target of 11,500 acres for the last fiscal year, hardly 20-25 percent of that area was planted and that too was done without ensuring quality of plantation.

To cover up the corruption, plantation on a smaller area with poor quality work was later conveniently shown as completely damaged by a locust attack.

The poor quality of earthwork carried out at different sites by government machinery was shown in bills and vouchers as having been done by labourers. New Peter engines were not purchased but were shown to have been operational for months. There are also complaints of bogus measurement books and bogus meter rolls prepared with fake names. Dubious log books were also allegedly prepared of government tractors, vehicles, tube wells and Peter pumps. It is relevant to mention here that the PTI government's Billion Tree Afforestation Project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was also plagued with serious controversies.

A few months ago, the Auditor General of Pakistan had concluded that while the physical targets of the Billion Tree Afforestation Project of the KP government were partially achieved, the Green Revolution as promised in the project document proved to be a far-fetched idea.

In its audit report, the AG had noted numerous shortcomings. The project planning remained flawed, its cost and timelines kept on changing, the public exchequer sustained heavy loss due to higher rates claimed for seedlings in departmental nurseries, the role of the Project Management Unit (PMU) in project execution was ineffective, rangeland and pasture management was abandoned without any justification, eucalyptus was planted on a larger scale than suggested in the PC-1 -- with detrimental consequences for the environment -- the allocation of funds to various Forest Divisions deviated considerably from the PC-I, issues of project financing adversely affected project execution and timelines plus a great deal more.

“Physical targets of the project were partially achieved. The audit team noticed failure of closures in considerably high numbers (35.14%) in seven Forest Divisions. Target for woodlots was 30,000 hectares against which 19,986.5 hectares was achieved. Target for reclamation of waterlogged & badlands stabilization was 450 hectares for Phase I and 1,950 hectares for Phase II. Data of the project directorate revealed an achievement of 290 hectares & 13,435 hectares for Phase I &II, respectively,” the report stated.

It added, the “audit found that the 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."