In June 2008, when he took over as Nenmara Divisional Forest Officer in Kerala, P. Dhanesh Kumar was widely seen as a hunted man.
His daring interventions as Mananthavady range officer had got him into trouble with politicians and the ganja mafia.
Quotation gangs were unleashed against him. He was given police protection and an attack on the Mananthavady range office left a senior superintendent seriously injured.
Dhanesh was often advised by his seniors and well-wishers to quit Wayanad, if not for his sake then for his staff’s.
His transfer to Nenmara with a promotion as DFO, was seen as a way of keeping him safe as he had escaped death by a whisker a number of times in Mananthavady, Chalakkuzhy, Marayur and Attappady.
His right leg, injured in an encounter with cinnamon bark poachers, had been operated on. Then he lost the little toe of the same limb in another attack and it had to be attached surgically.
But if anyone expected him to lie low in the face of the threats and injuries, he soon proved them wrong.
Within a month of taking over as Nenmara DFO, the officer launched a one-man operation that environmentalists now refer to as ‘Operation Clean Nelliampathy’.
Between June 2008 and July 2011 he dug up documents, fought multiple court battles and suffered deep physical and emotional wounds to reclaim over 6,000 acres of illegally occupied forest land in Nelliyampathy, exposing lease violations of 32 estates spread over 4,000 acres in the process.
“Dhanesh did a great job. He took care of all legal loopholes and the evictions carried out on the basis of his report can never be questioned,” says Mr Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer who worked closely with the dogged officer.
‘Operation Clean Nelliyampathy’ began with attempts to reclaim the 462 acre Oruvambady estate, whose owners had allegedly secured a favourable verdict from the high court using fabricated documents.
“I knew that the land was notified as ecologically fragile and belonged to the forest department. A preliminary inspection revealed that a gang of land grabbers with expertise in forging documents was operating out of Nenmara,” Dhanesh recalls.
His battle was fought on two fronts; one in the musty backrooms of sub-registrar offices and the other in the court-room.
Dhaneesh was looking for original lease deeds and this meant digging up records dating back to the 19th century as most leases were granted in the latter half of the 1800s by the Kochi maharaja.
But, the job also required scouring archives to find British survey numbers.
A detailed investigation later, the irregularities detected included: violation of lease conditions and the Forest Conservation Act, encroachment of surrounding forests, use of forged documents and lessees holding on to land even after having lost cases in courts.
“During his stint in Nenmara, Dhanesh prepared at least six counters a day to present in court, each one running into 20-30 pages,” recalls Mr Vasudevan. Dhaneesh didn’t hesitate to spend from his own pocket either.
“Each forest division gets not more than Rs 10,000 a year for making photostats. But Dhanesh spent over 1.5 lakh annually on this. He is not the kind who would recover the money by fudging accounts,” the advocate adds.
But his mission to save the forests has cost him in other ways too. Because of the constant threats to his life, he has kept his wife and child at a distance.
“My son is now three years old. I hardly saw him for nearly two-and-a-half years while the Nelliampathy operation was on,” recalls the officer, who finally sought a transfer in 2011, after his dogged fight of three years to restore the state’s forests.