Poor vigil to blame for encroachment of forests
The Supreme Court of India recently ordered Faridabad Municipal Corporation to clear encroachments in Aravali forest land within six weeks duly demolishing around 10,000 houses built unauthorisedly in Lakkarpur Kori village
The Supreme Court of India recently ordered Faridabad Municipal Corporation to clear encroachments in Aravali forest land within six weeks duly demolishing around 10,000 houses built unauthorisedly in Lakkarpur Kori village. The area is in Eco Sensitive Zone important for securing the ecological integrity of the landscape. The onus of compliance is put on Secretary, Forest, Haryana, and commissioner of civic body, Faridabad.
Superintendent of Police, Faridabad, has been directed to provide adequate forces to facilitate corporation official to carry out demolition drive and clear the forest lands from encroachments. The judges found it surprising that the authorities did not demolish unauthorized houses on forest land despite Supreme Court orders passed in February last year and in April this year.
Forest areas closer to cities are prone to encroachment by real estate developers. Forest Department of Delhi is also struggling to keep ridge area and a portion of Aravali in its jurisdiction free from encroachment. Forest lands within and adjoining corporation limits of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai etc have also been grabbed by real estate developers. Houses have been built and people have been living there for two three decades now.
Whenever demolitions and evictions are taken up by the authorities concerned, there is a public outcry and often authorities face law and order problem. In most cases the process is wound up without completing the task. Even if the activists file Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and matter goes to Court, finality is reached in only handful of cases. In the instant case of Faridabad Municipal Corporation, Supreme Court has already ordered for eviction twice. When both orders were not complied, the Court has passed similar order for the third time.
We in Karnataka realized the importance of forest lands near urban centers some two decades ago. The government took up special measures to build walls and chain link fences to protect whatever land has remained un-encroached. Many notified forests in and around Benguluru had been subjected to encroachments by land mafias in the past. A few of them were evicted subsequently and whatever has come in the possession of Forest Department has been protected by compound walls and chain link fencing.
In addition some security men are also engaged for the perambulation of the boundaries and secure the lands. Further this is not one time affair that the structure is constructed on the periphery and the task is complete. It needs annual maintenance and regular monitoring.
Further securing the land is not enough. The areas should be fully covered with trees. The gaps if any must be regenerated by artificial methods. The technique of greening urban areas is known to Forest department. Excavating bigger pits, filling it up with better quality earth if required and then planting the pit with tall seedlings may be necessary to supplement the naturally growing trees in the area.
Urban centers need lung spaces and thus all the forest lands available should be covered with trees. We need oxygen to breathe. The function of trees is to absorb carbon dioxide for its photosynthesis and release oxygen in the atmosphere. The more the trees we have, the more the oxygen would be released into the atmosphere. During the peak of the second wave of the corona pandemic the demand for medical oxygen had gone tenfold.
Patients died for lack of oxygen supply. The most common commercial method for preparing oxygen is the separation of air using either a cryogenic distillation process or vacuum swing adsorption process. I saw some newspaper reports wherein the doctor urging the patient to plant more trees after his discharge from hospital. His oxygen saturation had improved and he had fought COVID successfully.
Essentially forest encroachments take place for lack of vigil in the area. Forest codes adopted in each state of the country prescribe for maintaining the boundaries, regular perambulation and taking up legal proceeding against those found defacing the boundaries, damaging the tree growth and occupying the land. Often there are one or more notified enclosures within notified forests.
A single notified forest will have the outer boundary and also several inner boundaries demarcating each enclosure inside. In a forested landscape several notified forests do not have villages/ farm lands on all sides of the outer boundaries. Sometimes a Reserved Forest in Western Ghats closer to human settlement has its northern and eastern outer boundaries adjoining farm lands (coinciding with the village boundaries), while the remaining outer boundaries run along some other Reserved Forests or even streams and rivers.
The job of a beat officer, deputy range forest officer and range forest officer (frontline staffs) is to perambulate the outer boundary of the forests adjoining village boundaries and also all the boundaries of the enclosures. In addition, they have also to perambulate inside the forests to ensure that no criminal gang is active in cutting and transporting trees and hunting wild animals.
Lot of sincerity and hard work is required on the part of frontline staff of forest departments to prevent any damage to the forests. I do not say that the encroachments take place in the forests only because of the negligence of frontline staffs. Some encroachments in interior areas take place with their connivance as well.
Large scale encroachments on forest lands are reflection on the staffs and also on their senior officers. Divisional forest officers should spend time in the forests and ensure that the frontline staff perform their duties sincerely.
Forest Rights Act, 2006 provides for the recognition of rights of all scheduled tribe families occupying forest lands as on 13th of December 2005 and also other traditional forest dwellers in occupation of forest lands for 75 years as on that day. This has become a land grabbing Act. Politicians across the party lines also support the communities for electoral gains and encourage them to clear tree growth in more forest areas, occupy and claim rights. Ministry of Tribal Affair, nodal agency under the Act has junked the evidences from satellite imageries, which is the only evidence in support of the claim that cannot be forged. Other evidences listed in the Act can be manipulated.
The website of nodal agency reveals that the rights over five million hectare forest lands are already recognized in different states. In addition, another five million hectare forest lands are in occupation of the communities in different districts of the country, where rights have been rejected. The rejected cases are ordered by Supreme Court for reverification.
Encroachments on forest lands are going on endlessly, resulting in deforestation. Loss of tree cover means loss of ecological services the forests provide and also invitation for climatic catastrophes like floods, droughts, cyclones etc.
(The author is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)