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Bengaluru: 78,496 acres of forest land encroached in Shivamogga circle

Bengaluru: The alleged collusion between the forest department and political parties has resulted in encroachment of 78,496 acres of forest land in the Shivamogga circle which includes Shivamogga, Bhadravathi and Sagar divisions. According to the forest department as many as 51,892 cases of encroachment have been registered.

The unholy nexuses meant emasculation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) aimed at legitimising occupation of the forest land by scheduled tribes and other traditional dwellers in such forests for generations. But strangely, neither were their rights recorded nor were they vested with rights. The Act is also supposed to address the concerns of those who were forced to relocate on account of various development projects.

Whistleblowers within the forest department call this a legalised plunder. An activist on condition of anonymity said RFO Thirthalli at the behest of a senior BJP leader destroyed 1,200 saplings of Areca garden.

"In Shivamogga district, especially in Thirthahalli and Hosanagar taluks, a large extent of moist deciduous and evergreen forests are under the process of legalised robbery. Even our older teak plantations may disappear with falsified records," the whistleblower said.

However, the present and former forest officers point to the failure of the system to undo the wrongs perpetrated through corruption.

In his report on February 28, 2018, Justice Adi recommended disciplinary action against several officials including Assistant Conservator of Forests Venkatesh, Sagar sub division, Assistant Conservator of Forests G R Keshavamurthy in charge of Hosnagar Subdivision, Social Welfare Officer Mallikarjun, Hosnagar taluk, former Assistant Conservator of Forests R D Naik, Soraba Subdivision, Assistant Director Srinivas, Social Welfare Officer, Shikaripur, and Assistant Conservator of Forests Shikaripur H M Jagadishkumar.

The Act provides for conferring of rights on scheduled tribes (STs) on forest land in their occupation as on 13-12-2005. Traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) in occupation of forest land for 75 years as on 13-12-2005 also get the same rights. Ironically, the flood gates for large scale encroachments opened after this Act and Rules came into existence. Interpretation of satellite imageries reveals that maximum encroachments in Karnataka took place in Shivamogga and Uttar Kannada district. The nexus between politicians and bureaucrats ensured that ineligible claims were also accepted by the district level committees (as provided under the Act) headed by Deputy Commissioner of the district. The process of verification of claims is not very stringent and many ineligible claims are accepted based on the evidence from village elders.

DCF and ACFs working in Sagar division of Shivamogga district have recommended a number of ineligible and bogus claims for vesting rights on forest lands, which were occupied after the Act came into existence. Based on a complaint from retired forester Upa Lokayukta enquire was also conducted.

"Mohan S Gangolli was an officer from State Forest Service and was holding the additional charge of the post of Sagar Forest Division, which is otherwise in cadre list of Indian Forest Service (IFS). A non IFS officer cannot be allowed to hold the post of DCF Sagar beyond three months, without approval of the Government of India. Gangolli's holding the post of DCF Sagar was held illegal in the investigation but it was clear that this posting was politically motivated and was done on the recommendation of former Speaker of Karnataka Legislative Assembly Kagodu Thimmappa," Upa Lokayukta observed.

It was also noted that Shivamogga is a district, which is in Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot of the country.

"The present scenario indicates that the Western Ghats is facing a new threat due to changing rainfall patterns besides continuing pressures from developmental activities. A more uncertain rainfall pattern is one of the biggest impacts of climate change. The rainfall pattern in the Western Ghats is changing for the worse and thereby giving rise to global warming. State is not only the protector of its subject but also protector of environment and ecology. There must be systematic approach to balance the development and environment. It is in the interest of State that its subjects follow the law, not to break the law. The grant of forest land to ineligible persons by way of illegal proceedings cannot be tolerated," the Upa Lokayuta noted.

Talking to The Hans India about the case, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), B.K Singh elaborated" "So far as the disciplinary proceedings against the respondents are concerned, the government did order the same, but the respondent approached Karnataka State Administrative Tribunal, Belgavi, and obtained a stay on September 6, 2019. However Upa Lokayukta's recommendation for resumption of illegally granted forest land by the government under all the three proceedings under reference has not been questioned by any authority and has also not been complied by government and DLC Shivamogga.

The findings of Upa Lokayukta are with regard to the claims which are accepted in DLC. Only 2.8% claims are accepted and remaining 97.2% claims are rejected/ kept pending. More than 69,000 acres of forest lands are in occupation of applicants whose claims are not accepted. The Supreme Court has also approved the proposal of State and Central governments to re-open, take up re-verification of such claims and till then the claimants should not be dispossessed with the occupation of the land. Major chunks of tree growth on such lands are already lost and whatever are remaining will also be lost in due course. Ecological services from these forests are foregone conclusions. It will aggravate global warming and climate change would lead to more frequent and destructive catastrophes like drought, flood, depletion of flow of water in tributaries and rivers, storms, cyclones etc, which will ruin human life."

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