CHENNAI: After they dilly-dallied over delivering 35 metric tonnes of sandalwood to an export firm which won it in an auction 16 years ago, Madras High Court has ordered the Forest Department officials to comply within two weeks - or face a conviction and serve time in jail.
The first Bench, comprising Chief Justice S K Kaul and Justice TS Sivagnanam said the Forest Department was way out of line for not delivering the wood after orders to that effect had already been passed by this court as as well as the Supreme Court.
In the recent hearing on a contempt case filed by the company, the Bench said, “We grant two weeks time to comply with the order as a last opportunity, failing which there will be no option but to pass the formal order of conviction and sentence.” The court made it clear that three top officials of the department must appear in person again on August 4, when the case will be taken further.
The court gave the warning while hearing a contempt petition against Hans Raj Verma, TN Environment and Forest Secretary, Vinod Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and H Rajamohan, District Forest Officer (Tirupattur division) for ‘willfully failing’ to hand over the sandalwood to an export firm.
In October 1999, Gupta Enterprises, an AP based sandalwood products export company, took part in a bidding sale by the State government for 35 metric tons of sandalwood at Tirupattur, Vellore district, valued at Rs 1.09 crore at that time.
The company after winning the bid, paid Rs 23 lakh the same day. But, while taking the consignment from the government godown, officials insisted on sales tax payment though the company showed government orders granting tax exemption for exportable items. Pointing out that the company had an export order even when it took part in the bid, it said a similar tender process that it won in Sathyamangalam was concluded without sales tax.
But, the officials disagreed and said `22 lakh paid as deposit was forfeited in April 2000. Aggrieved, the exporter moved the High Court and got a favourable order which was challenged by the State.
Eventually, in November 2014, it won the legal battle in Supreme Court. Despite this, the Forest Department refused to hand over the sandalwood, forcing the company to launch contempt proceedings against the authorities.
Observing that the review petition moved by the authorities before the Supreme court was a counter-blast to the preset contempt proceedings, the Bench made it clear that the present order would be subject to the direction of Supreme Court in the review petition.