WHILE reserve forests have been relatively more difficult to encroach upon given the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the same cannot be said about forests that come under the `protection' of the Revenue Department. Depending on the region these could be called forest reserves, revenue forests, district forests, protected forests, sopinabetas, hardis, devarakadus, uraduves, coffee kharabs, bane lands, wooded paisaris, jamma malais, coffee saguvali malais or khans. And all they have been extensively encroached upon.
The Supreme Court, in it is order in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and others for the first time defined the term `forest' - all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise. And `forest land' not only includes `forest' as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as a forest in government records. The Order went on to say that the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act must apply to all forests so understood, irrespective of ownership and classification. Even in the Forest (Conservation) Act as per Section 2 `forest land' refers to reserved, protected or any other area recorded as forest in government records.
Successive governments in Karnataka have ordered the transfer to the Forest Department of thickly wooded forest lands still under the control of the Revenue Department. This is basically meant to protect forests and increase forest cover, in keeping with the Supreme Court order and to compensate for the huge tracts of forest that have been submerged for the sake of hydel projects. But despite very many orders, very little of the land has actually been mutated in favour of the Forest Department. In some cases, while they have been mutated in the records of the Forest Department, mutation in revenue records has not taken place. Forests under the control of the Revenue Department are more susceptible to encroachment and easier for politicians to `give away'.
In Koppa Forest Division - which is part of Chickmagalur district and was specially created in 1964 for the efficient management of the vast revenue forests over 27,500 ha of virgin forests have been lost to encroachers during the last 10 years. In April 1991, over 20 lakh ha of district forests in the Forest Division which had since 1964 been transferred to the Forest Department as `forest reserves' under Section 71 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act, 1964, were transferred by the Deputy Commissioner, Chickmagalur back to the Revenue Department. This was an illegal step since as per the Supreme Court's orders any area recorded as forest (irrespective of ownership and classification) in government records is deemed as a forest and hence attracts the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act. (And it cannot be diverted, except with the prior approval of the Central government, for non-forestry activity.)
As recently as last June, an order by the Deputy Commissioner Chickamagalur to transfer 55,200 ha of thickly wooded forest lands in Koppa Forest Division to the Forest Department under Section 71 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act was stayed in July by the Karnataka government initially for three months and then till April 2, 2003. The Deputy Commissioner's move was in conformity with the Supreme Court directives and aimed at protecting the forests. And the Deputy Commisioner had taken care to order the transfer of only lands that had been `marginally' encroached.
When that was the case the question is, who sought the stay? Did the government succumb to forces that want to encroach upon these forests? Or is the government preparing to divert the land, therefore preferring to keep it in the records of the Revenue Department?
But even if the land is regarded as revenue land (which forest officials averred it should not be) the Government Order (GO) pertaining to encroachments on revenue land should apply. The GO, issued in 1991 and modified in 1999, specifies that only landless persons or those who own less than 2 ha anywhere in Karnataka and are in possession of and were cultivating it prior to 1987, and applied prior to 1991 (later this was extended to 1999) can appeal for the regularisation of their land.
The S.M. Krishna government is said to have acted on a letter written by Motamma, Minister for Women and Child Welfare, who claimed that a number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe and landless people were staying on the forest land and that they would be left homeless if evicted. After the stay was sought, the Revenue Department was asked in October to conduct a survey and verify applications submitted prior to April 30, 1999. There are `claims' from encroachers for 12,800 ha. But according to Revenue Department sources, claims with regard to hardly 40 per cent of the land (totalling less than 5,120 ha) are eligible for regularisation, going by the 1991 GO. The rest of the land involves people who already own land in excess of 1.2 ha, even by those who own coffee estates in excess of 25 ha. However, they have lobbied and convinced the government to include in the survey all the land that has been encroached. (The Chief Minister ordered the Deputy Commissioner to do so after he visited the area recently.)
A forest department officer explained: "Once the survey includes their lands, they will get an authorised sketch from the Revenue Department stating that they are in possession of the encroached land. They could then seek a stay from the courts on the basis of claims that they have been in possession of the encroached land for 25 to 30 years, that they have spent money on coffee cultivation and that the possession should be regularised. And once they get a stay it will be very difficult for us to get it vacated. This way they can continue to enjoy the land. Many have also got forged land records from the Revenue Department. The irony is, it is forest land, illegally transferred to the Revenue Department (in 1991) and now with pressure from the government encroachers are going to have their illegitimate coffee plantations regularised. It is highly demoralising to the Forest Department.''
Forest Department officials alleged that some people in the Revenue Department were (mostly since 1998-99) unlawfully changing the Rights, Tenancy and Crops (RTC) extract of forest land quoting the 1991 order by the Deputy Commissioner. This is a clear violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, and the Forest Department has repeatedly written to the government on this but to no avail.
Amid this tug-of-war and swapping of ownership between the Revenue and Forest Departments, some encroachers legitimise their holdings allegedly by managing to tamper with RTC and other documents.
According to a report prepared in 2002 by the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Madikeri division, "some companies have encroached more than 200 ha of reserve forests, a fact that can be confirmed by the National Remote Sensing Agency''. More important, around 1,600 ha of reserve forest and paisari land in Kodagu district that had been leased to companies owned by the British pre-1947 for rubber or tea cultivation and has passed through many hands are today in the hands of lessees who have violated many of the lease conditions, according to the report.
The report states: "It seems higher authorities are not taking this serious issue in the proper manner in spite of (being given) all the detailed facts of the cases.''