Encroachments in Thatkola

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

Despite a Supreme Court order to evict encroachers in the Thatkola reserve forest in Karnataka's Chickmagalur district, the State government has done little to recover the land.

recently in Chickmagalur

THE S.M. Krishna government in Karnataka is yet to act on the Supreme Court order of October 2002 regarding encroachments in the Thatkola reserve forests in Chickmagalur district. Under the court's directive, the Karnataka Forest Department should have, by January 31, 2003, reclaimed 611.23 acres (244.5 hectares) of reserve forest land from encroachers. The court had directed that the encroachers should pay the government Rs.5,00,000 a hectare a month if they failed to hand over the lands in their possession.

While most of the encroachers have given letters `surrendering' the land in their possession to the Forest Department, the department has not taken steps to restore the land to their original state. In short, the process of surrender remains on paper, and the encroachers still enjoy the fruits of the land. Much of it is prime coffee estates.

The events leading to the Thatkola judgment had its origins in August 1997. Following the Supreme Court orders with regard to forest encroachments (starting with T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Government of India in Writ Petition 202/95) Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Chickmagalur, A.M. Annaiah, and his superior officer, the Conservator of Forests, Shimoga Circle, R.M.N. Sahai, decided to identify encroachers in the Chickmagalur Forest Division, of which Thatkola is a part. The DCF's office identified over 400 cases by November 1997. One of the persons identified as an encroacher was B.L. Shankar, then President of the Janata Dal and currently the Chairman of the Karnataka Legislative Council.

On November 30, 1997, a forest offence case (FOC) - No. 55 of 1997-98 - was registered regarding encroachment of 31 acres and 12 guntas (40 guntas make an acre) of forest land comprising Survey No. 4 in Kenjigegudda Coffee Estate Village (KGCEV), part of the Thatkola reserve forest (RF). The Forest Mobile Squad, Chickmagalur, registered the case against Shankar, his brother and his father-in-law, all of whom are partner-owners of a coffee estate, which owns the land comprising Survey No. 3 of KGCEV in the Thatkola reserve forest. Under a notification issued on April 25, 1936 (that made Thatkola a state forest) by the Maharaja of Mysore, the land comprising Survey No.3 was earmarked as an enclosure (private land) that adjoins Survey No.4, which is forest land. The Forest Department contends that the estate had encroached upon Survey No. 4.

Annaiah was transferred by the then State government within a week of the FOC being filed. The State Administrative Tribunal stayed the transfer. The other investigating officers, including Sahai were transferred.

Yet, by March 1999, cases of encroachment relating to over 3,500 ha of forest land had been booked in the Chickmagalur Forest Range. But these cases floundered owing to lethargy on the part of the government in pursuing them.

After the Supreme Court in 1997 gave all citizens the opportunity to file applications before an amicus curiae (friend of the court) with regard to any degradation of forests anywhere, K.R. Sethana, environmentalist and coffee planter from Chickmagalur, filed an interim application before the court regarding large-scale deforestation and encroachment in the Thatkola reserve forest. This, Interim Application (IA) 276, was tagged onto WP 202/95.

In March 1998, the Supreme Court asked the Karnataka government to provide it with a list of encroachers in the Thatkola reserve forest and sought to know what action the government had taken under Section 64A of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963 to evict them. Because of the slow progress in identifying encroachers and the transfer of forest officials, the court in July appointed a Court Commissioner to visit Thatkola and provide a status report.

Among the issues before the Court Commissioner were rainfall patterns, pesticide spraying, the level of efficiency of the forest staff, and any connivance between Revenue and Forest Department staff and plantation owners. Most important, he was concerned with the identification of cases of encroachment, (eviction) orders and appeals under Section 64A of the Karnataka Forest Act, the conduct of a survey of the Thatkola reserve forest by the Survey of India, and the conduct of a survey by the Joint Director of Land Records (JDLR), Mysore to identify the extent of encroachment in Survey No.4. The Court Commissioner submitted his report on September 7, 1998. (Updated reports were submitted in January 1999 and August 2002.)

According to the survey plotted by the Forest Department on the sketch of the Thatkola reserve forest as drawn by the Survey of India (which had been requested in 1998 by the Karnataka government to survey the forest and fix boundary stones), the encroachment into Survey No.4 amounted to 40 acres and 37 guntas. Adjoining this was an alleged encroachment to the extent of 13 acres and 28 guntas.

Annaiah contended that the total extent of enjoyment by the owners of Survey No.3 had not been surveyed and that they were also changing the nature of encroachment. This was in violation of the Supreme Court's July 1998 orders in IA 276 and the Karnataka government's notification of August 1998.

The Court Commissioner's report to the Supreme Court in January 1999 stated that the barbed wire fence had been removed from about five acres of the encroached land. "However, evidence of vacated encroachment, viz., removal of undergrowth of forests, cutting of bamboo clumps, planted coffee seedlings and sprouting Duranta cutting along the fence were clearly seen... Efforts to destroy the evidence of encroachments are obvious." The Range Forest Officer, Mudigere, registered cases against Shankar and others (FOC 19/98-99 and 67/98-99).

On Annaiah's insistence, the area that had been allegedly encroached upon and then abandoned was also surveyed. In June 1999, the JDLR submitted his report. It said: "The two villages boundaries overlap; a single report as to the nature of encroachment can't be given without correcting one of the village boundaries; when a survey is conducted taking the Kundur village boundary into consideration, then the holders of Survey No 3 have not encroached any land in Survey No 4; when a survey is conducted by taking KGCEV boundary into consideration, then the holders of Survey No 3 appear to have encroached an extent of 32 ac and 3 g in Survey No 4; and the distance between some permanent points on the ground do not agree with the distance between the same points in the map."

A charge-sheet was filed in the court of the Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC), Mudigere in April 1999, in criminal case No.613/99. However during the pendancy of the case one of the accused approached the Karnataka High Court through a criminal revision petition (No. 1303/99) to quash the proceedings under way in the Mudigere court. Justice B.K. Sangalad, after hearing the parties, ordered: "In the result the petition is allowed. The whole proceedings in CC No.613 of 1999 are quashed and all the accused are discharged." Forest officials who were working on the case were of the view that the Judge had based the judgment on a section of the JDLR report which stated that ''when a survey is conducted taking the Kundur village boundary into consideration, then the holders of Survey No.3 have not encroached any land in Survey No.4".

For the Survey of India, the survey of Thatkola reserve forest was a daunting task. The work was repeatedly disrupted "due to frequent hindrances created by locals, due probably with the active assistance of influential politicians", wrote the Director, Survey of India, Southern Circle, in January 1999. But it did submit a report to the Supreme Court in April 2000. According to the report, 147 instances of encroachment (accounting for 611.23 acres) had taken place in the Thatkola reserve forest. Of these 147, 100 persons had encroached upon 3 acres or less (accounting for a total of 118.613 acres), 19 persons had encroached on between 3 and 5 acres (totalling 79.96 acres), and 10 had encroached on between 5 and 10 acres (59.5 acres). Interestingly, the majority of the encroachment (adding up to 353.16 acres) was committed by just 18 people, each of whom had encroached on an area in excess of 10 acres.

Of the 147 cases, 102 (totalling 556.04 acres) was encroached for use in coffee cultivation. Further, only 42 of the encroachments were by those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (71.66 acres), belying the Karnataka government's contention that going ahead with the evictions would harm the under-privileged. According to the report, Shankar and his relatives had encroached on an area of 27.67 acres in Survey No.4 of KGCEV in the Thatkola reserve forest.

This was contested by Shankar and others like him who had been identified as encroachers. They filed IAs before the Supreme Court, which forwarded them to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which heard the IAs in July and August 2002. The CEC accepted the Report of the Survey of India and the findings of the Court Commissioner and ruled that the encroachments needed to be removed immediately, especially as these were made for commercial gains; that adequate steps had not been taken by the state government for the removal of encroachments in the past, and that in spite of the appointment of a Court Commissioner and the deep concern shown by the Supreme Court, the encroachments were being allowed to continue.

The CEC further recommended that the Chief Secretary be made personally responsible for the removal of such encroachments (with the Director-General of Police made responsible for police protection) and that the encroachers be made to pay a compensation of Rs.5,00,000 a hectare for environmental losses caused owing to their encroachment.

Hearing the matter on October 30, 2002 the Supreme Court accepted the CEC's recommendations, but with one modification. It directed that encroachers who voluntarily vacated the encroached land and handed it over to the Chief Conservator of Forests on or before January 31, 2003 need not pay compensation. But if they continued to occupy the land after January they would have to pay Rs.5,00,000 per ha a month to the government. The court held that the report and the map prepared by the Survey of India were not open to challenge and that the state of Karnataka had itself in its affidavit stated that it accepted the correctness of the report and that "action has been initiated to evict the encroachers".

The judgment has not gone down well with the 147 persons named in the report as encroachers. They have come together under the banner of the Thatkola Reserve Forest Cultivators Forum. While some have filed review petitions in the Supreme Court, others have taken out protest marches and submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister and some Ministers. They hold the view that the judgment does not talk of a rehabilitation and resettlement package for them and unfairly compares coffee cultivation with other forms of non-forest-based activity. The coffee planters argue that since the coffee crop requires shade, they have not cut down many trees; have prevented forest fires; and have created `cradle pits' to check water flow, thereby helping prevent soil erosion. They add that they have looked after the forests better than the Forest Department has been doing. But many planters also admitted that one day the eviction was bound to happen.

Another contention of the encroachers is that the Survey of India's findings are wrong. Said K.D. Manohar of Kathelekhan Coffee Estate (Survey No. 5) who has allegedly encroached on 26.44 acres of land in KGCEV: "When the Survey of India did the survey in 1997, we were not asked to produce any documents. It ignored the old boundaries and put new markings. The Forest Department had not maintained proper forest boundaries till 1997. Markings had been last made in 1936 after Thatkola was notified as a State forest. This long interval meant that many people could have encroached on forest land without knowing that it was a part of the forest."

Pradeep K.B. who has allegedly encroached on 37.3194 acres of forest land in Survey No. 4 and 35 of KGCEV, wants a resurvey conducted jointly by the Revenue and Forest Departments, based on the 1936 notification.

A technical officer of the Survey of India who had worked on the survey said that there could be variations on account of the use of modern technology as compared to the chain survey method of the 1930s and 1940s, but if the 1936 notification is followed there should be no problem. "We took into account records of the Revenue Department (maps and documents pertaining to the five revenue villages of Kengige, Kengigegudda, Bidarahalli, Hesagal and Phalguni) and the Forest Department (such as the 1943 Mysore Forest Survey map of Thatkola by K. Krishnaswamy), and the 1936 notification. Only then did we survey the area. The court, the Karnataka government and the CEC have all upheld our survey. If people had a problem, they could have protested then," he said.

WHILE the big encroachers may stand to lose parts of their estates, nearly 100 families will lose their entire holdings. While some of them admitted that they had encroached because they had nowhere else to go'', others said they had been given sites by the government. They displayed haaku patras (ownership documents) to prove their case. It is a fact that 53 sites were allotted to S.Ts under the State government's `Ashraya' scheme in Hesgal village (Survey No. 39) to S.Ts. The SoI survey shows that 26 of these sites in what is now called the Halladagandi Colony fall within the Thatkola reserve forest. Houses have been built on a majority of these sites and in the year 2000, the government even provided a water supply facility as well as a small lower primary school. All this despite the fact that by 2000, it was well known that the area was part of the reserve forest. Some dwellers in the forest like Kamalamma Komasubbiah who owns 4 acres and 38 guntas of land claimed that the Social Welfare Department had sanctioned money for the construction of an open well and a pump house. Paddy cultivators here said that the Agriculture Department had dug ponds for them.

The Supreme Court is yet to hear petitions from some planters who have allegedly encroached on land in Thatkola, requesting it to prevent the Karnataka government from removing coffee plants standing on the disputed land. Around 500 acres of the encroached land has been `surrendered' to the DCF, Chickmagalur.

A forest officer said: "All this `surrendering'/`handing over' is a drama. The land is still in their possession. The plants are still there, and they are being harvested. With an acre valued between Rs.150,000 and 200,000, who will turn over the land? To take the forest land back, the Forest Department should first destroy the coffee plants. The court has given the Forest Department an opportunity to recover its property, but nothing is being done about it."

Informed sources told Frontline that the DCF, Chickmagalur had written to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests asking for directions. While environmentalists aver that the DCF's and the government's inaction constitutes contempt of the Supreme Court in the context of the October 2002 judgment, the alleged encroachers are hoping that the court and/or the Central and State governments will pass legislation in order to come to their rescue and allow them to keep the land.

A Cabinet Sub-committee of the Karnataka government has recommended that the State approach the Supreme Court and seek a review of all encroachments - including in Thatkola RF - in the State.

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