The ways of the encroachers

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

A hut built on a piece of encroached land in Madikeri. -

A hut built on a piece of encroached land in Madikeri. -

THE mechanics of forest land encroachment are manifold. The biggest of the encroachments are those made by big estate owners and these run into hundreds of acres each. The encroacher usually approaches the village accountant or revenue inspector, and after greasing some palms and forging a few documents, begins paying takrar takth (TT) a minimal fine collected for encroaching on a small piece of land. This is the first step towards the regularisation of an encroachment. The encroacher then claims that his possession and cultivation of the land in question is over 10 years old and that he has paid TT for several years. Eviction is impossible here and the TT that the encroacher pays constitutes only a fraction of the land tax that he is otherwise bound to pay for ownership.

Many coffee plantation owners regularly push their perimeter fences further into adjoining land. Apparently this is the way it works: The owner asks his labourers to set up their huts just outside the estate on forest/government land. Then he tells them to cultivate coffee plants around the huts. After a few years the estate's boundary is moved to encompass the new plants and the worker's huts are again erected just outside a new fence.

Elsewhere, once the area to be encroached is identified, trees are cut and shifted over a period of time. When the tree cover is thinned out, the bamboo clumps are lopped off and allowed to lean on the few still rooted ones. Once the lopped bamboo dries up, it is set on fire. Thus it burns even while it is upright, leaving intact the humus that is required for coffee cultivation. The undergrowth and the shrubs are then cleared. Coffee saplings are planted in the encroached area. "This is done mostly during the monsoon when it is difficult for us to motor up into the hills," said a Forest Department official.

Again, the smaller ones among the encroachers write to the district authorities admitting to encroachment and requesting the government to regularise it. Given the slow pace of the bureaucracy, nothing happens. After a few years they approach the courts. The lawyers for the government and the plaintiff confabulate and request the court to direct the authorities to expedite the regularisation request. The matter goes to the district authorities. The order not being a time-bound one, a fluid situation prevails. In view of the court order, officials remain reluctant to evict the encroachers .

In many cases, government departments such as Revenue and Social Welfare have knowingly and unknowingly allotted forest land, even reserve forest land, for government-sponsored programmes. The plan is simple enough and benefits all concerned. Plantation owners, in league with local politicians, tell their labourers that labour lines would be built for them. With the politician hand-in-glove in the matter, the labour lines are built on the closest available government land, usually forest land. Sites are earmarked and houses built at government cost. The labourers get their homes, the plantation owner gets the required shelter for his workers (at no cost to him), and the local politicians gets his vote bank and probably more.

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