Eating up forest land

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

Encroachment by politically and economically influential groups threatens to destroy the already shrinking forest cover of Karnataka.

RAVI SHARMA recently in the Western Ghats

CAUGHT between the Supreme Court's directive that all illegal forest settlers should be evicted by May 31, 2003 and its own desire to follow a populist path, the Karnataka government today hopes that the Central government will come to its rescue and help avoid a law and order problem. The dilemma involves ecological concerns on the one hand and economic and political considerations on the other.

Chief Minister S.M. Krishna told the State legislature last December that since April 1978, 98,978 hectares of reserve forest land has been encroached upon by 112,554 families. The extent of encroachments in `revenue/protected forests', that is, forests on government land that are not in the control of the Forest Department is yet to be accurately assessed, but in some Forest Divisions it is estimated to be quite large. These encroachments do not come within the ambit of the Supreme Court order.

Taking the average density of encroached forests as 0.5, the "environmental value" comes to Rs.62,722.35 crores. (The Union government has estimated that the environmental value of a fully stocked forest with a density of 1.0 is Rs.1.27 crores).

In terms of area (roughly 1,000 square kilometres) out of a total forest area of 38.3 lakh sq km the total extent of encroachment may not appear to be alarming. But much of the encroachment appears to have taken place in pockets in the midst of thick reserve forests, and this has had an adverse effect on the surroundings forests. The encroachments have also disrupted elephant corridors.

A large extent (over 50,000 ha) of the encroachments are either in the middle of, or proximate to, the ecologically sensitive rainforests of the Western Ghats. And on most of this land, commercial crops such as coffee, cardamom, arecanut, tapioca, groundnut and rubber, or agricultural crops such as paddy, jowar and ragi are being raised. Of the total extent of encroachment, the Forest Department has recovered just 15,911.26 ha from 13,636 families. Only in the Belgaum Forest Division has it retrieved all the identified encroached land 5,124.23 ha occupied by 4,494 families.

Repossessing the remaining land requires a Herculean effort by the Forest and Revenue Departments, backed by political resolve. But the government would prefer to regularise these encroachments. Forests and Environment Minister K.H. Ranganath and Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister D.B. Chandre Gowda readily confessed this fact to this correspondent. Both Houses of the Legislature passed unanimous resolutions last December favouring such a course of action.

On February 6 the government decided to reconstitute a Cabinet subcommittee assigned to study the encroachments issue. The committee is to "draw up fresh guidelines to decide who should be evicted and who should continue possessing their (encroached) land''. The committee is to submit its recommendations in a month. The government will then make an appeal to the Centre and file a review petition in the Supreme Court.

Minister Ranganath said: "We are requesting the Centre to permit regularisation. Besides plantations, in many of these encroached areas there are schools, colleges, roads, government offices and even houses built under various government schemes for the weaker sections of society. Where will these people go?'' Minister Chandre Gowda added: "We are helpless in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. But we are requesting the Centre to release certain portions of the encroached land so that it can be handed over to beneficaries. We are representing to the Government of India to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, so as to enable regularisation.'' Under the Act, only the Centre can permit or regularise the use of forest land for non-forestry purposes.

The Act conforms to the National Forest Policy, 1988 and the government's Action Plan for Forests under which 33.33 per cent of land area should be retained as forests. (Of this, 66.33 per cent will be in the hills and the rest in the plains.) The Act has to a large extent checked the pressure on forests for agriculture, habitation, the extraction of timber, fuel wood, fodder, medicinal plants and so on, besides for the development of infrastructure.

Amending the Act could well open the floodgates, generating demands for the regularisation of over 7,25,000 ha of forest land (as of July 2002) around the country encroached upon after the Act came into force in October 1980. Among the States, Assam heads the list with an extent of 2,54,711 ha being encroached, followed by Madhya Pradesh (1,52,000 ha), Karnataka (98,000 ha) and Maharashtra (73,000 ha). Some estimates put the total extent of encroachment at over 1,250,000 ha.

Alarmed by the scale of the encroachment, the Supreme Court, in an Interim Order dated December 19, 1996 on a writ petition (No.202 of 1995: T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and Others), held that any non-forestry activity in forest areas constitutes prima facie a violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, and directed that every State government ensure the cessation of all such activities.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests also got into the act, calling upon the States to evict encroachers in a time-bound manner. Ironically, the Ministry acknowledges that encroachments "are generally done by powerful lobbies''.

IN Karnataka's forests, encroachments have occurred since Independence, with the last two decades witnessing a spurt. Karnataka's forest cover as a percentage of forest area to geographical area (16.86 per cent) has fallen below the national average (19.47 per cent). The Planning Commission's recommendation is that it should not fall below 20 per cent.

Faced with pressure from encroachers, in October 1991 Karnataka petitioned the Government of India to regularise for non-forestry purposes under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act 17,007.23 ha (in 21,569 cases) of forest land that had been encroached upon prior to April, 27, 1978. The Centre had the areas surveyed, and in an order dated May 15, 1996 agreed to the regularisation of 14,848.83 ha (involving 19,348 cases). But as per a Government Order (GO) dated May 5, 1997, this regularisation was subject to certain conditions. It was only to be done to an extent of 3 acres or 1.2 ha in individual cases (including forest encroachment), and in the case of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs), landless marginal agricultural labourers and those holding an insufficient extent of land - up to 3 acres of agricultural land. The person concerned should have been domiciled for at least 10 years in a village adjacent to which the forest land encroached by him lies. In the case of `landless marginal agricultural labourers' the encroacher or his family should not hold or own any agricultural land anywhere in Karnataka and the total annual family income should not exceed Rs. 8,000.

The order of the Government of India had decreed that encroachments in the midst of forests, on steep slopes or in the middle of national parks or sanctuaries should not be regularised. Eligible encroachers from these areas could be relocated on the fringes of forests, on areas recovered from encroachers.

But an important feature of the Karnataka GO that the Forest Department would "take immediate action to evict persons who had unauthorisedly encroached upon forest land on or after 27.4.1978, in accordance with provisions of Section 64 A of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963" is still to be acted upon. The blame lies on the slow pace of the State government machinery and on forest officers who toe the politician's line. A number of encroachers are, after all, influential persons, and some of them are themselves politicians.

The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests was to identify 15,000 ha of C and D class lands (land that is unfit for cultivation) from the State government's Land Bank and approach the Revenue Department for their release for afforestation activity. This has been done. These lands were also to be mutated in favour of the Forest Department and notified by the State government as protected/reserve forests. But these and other directions have not always been complied with, and encroachments have multiplied by the day. According to sources in the Forest Department and environmental groups, the pattern continues unabated.

In Karnataka, instances of encroachment by landless local persons have been few and far between. Most of the encroachments have been committed by others. For example, encroachments especially in the forest divisions of Sagar, Shimoga, Madikeri and Virajpet post-1978 were mainly by immigrants from Kerala. Interestingly, they did not enter the reserve forests, instead choosing tracts adjacent to them. They initially cultivated tapioca and switched to ginger in the mid-1990s. Once farming became less profitable, many of them sold their holdings and left. Some stayed on, switching to coffee or arecanut. Seeing the success of the immigrants, local folk also started encroaching on and cultivating land. The conflict between the local encroachers and those who had come from elsewhere, led to a law and order problem in 1996-97.

In Sagar and Shimoga divisions, political patronage extended by a Congress leader aided encroachers. In the former, encroachments took place mainly in the urban and rural areas of Sagar, Shikaripur, Hosangara and Soraba during the period between 1989 and 1993. In all, 10,956.97 ha in 13,581 cases, with a majority of them involving less than 2 ha, have been identified.

According to officials of the Forest Department in Sagar, the encroachments have been of four types: those who have put up a fence to collect farmyard manure for their areca gardens but are not cultivating the land; those who had cultivated and harvested paddy, jowar, ragi and sugarcane (the Forest Department is hoping to evict the encroachers in this category before the next sowing season); those with arecanut gardens ("very difficult to confiscate"); and those who have built houses ("next to impossible to evict''). There are also major discrepancies between the mutation records of the Forest and Revenue Departments.

The government's contention that the poor, the landless and the SCs and STs are the ones usually affected is not borne out by statistics, especially in divisions such as Chickmagalur and Koppa.

In Madikeri division, 2,490 cases have been identified, involving 2,321.2 ha. One of the encroachers, as per the records, is a Minister in the State. According to a report prepared in 2002 by the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Madikeri, there have been many instances of the Revenue Department making illegal grants of notified forest land. Some of the land is in the possession of government agencies. Survey numbers and mutation records have been altered in order to facilitate the grant of land to individuals.

Given that almost 80 per cent of all land in Uttara Kannada district is by definition `forest land', the problem in these forest divisions is different from that in other parts of the State. Most of the land is rain-fed, and irrigation facilities are rudimentary. The average individual size of the encroachments is small.

In the coastal Honnavar division, while in the rural areas encroachers have utilised land for both habitation and agriculture, in the urban areas it is exclusively for the purpose of building homes. In Honnavar town there are around 2,000 huts that are situated on encroached forest land.

According to environmentalists like Praveen Bhargav of `Wildlife First', much of the blame for this state of affairs should go to politicians. "Politicians enter the fray, politicise the issue claiming that these lands have houses, schools, panchayat offices and other living establishments and therefore cannot be a forest. Protests are held against the anti-small farmer approach of the Forest Department, and yet another reserve forest goes.''

Says D. V. Girish of the Nature Conservation Guild, Chickmagalur, himself a coffee planter, "It is rubbish to say that small encroachers are the ones who are affected by evictions. A poor man cannot run a coffee plantation. A large number of big and influential planters keep on expanding their estates by encroaching into neighbouring forests and revenue lands. No one touches them."

According to Girish, if the government is serious about rehabilitating the small farmers and the landless who have encroached on forest or revenue forest lands, the thousands of acres of revenue land that has been encroached in this manner should be repossessed to be handed over to them.

Such views have many takers, but taking back revenue land, even land that was in the recent past identified as `forest land' from influential coffee and arecanut planters all across the Western Ghats needs political resolve and not merely court orders.

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