Lack of will delays eviction of encroachers

Encroachment by influential groups threatens to destroy the shrinking forest cover of Karnataka.

The conservation of forest wealth has become a leading challenge in India. Karnataka, endowed with some of the most magnificent forests in the country is presently under fire from the high court to evict encroachers of its forest land.

The total recorded forest area of the State is 38,284.30 sq km, constituting 20 per cent of the geographical area. From the majestic evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the scrub jungles of the plains, a wide variety of habitats exist in Karnataka with very typical flora and fauna, some of them endemic to the region. Encroachment by politically, religiously and economically influential groups threatens to destroy the already shrinking forest cover of Karnataka.

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. In addition to the loss of habitat; such raid friendly crops attract the wild animals to the field and these encroachers in turn demand compensation from the forest department for their crop loss too.

Of the total extent of encroachment, the Forest Department has so far recovered just 15,911.26 ha from 13,636 families. Only the Belgaum Forest Division has retrieved all the identified encroached land — 5,124.23 ha occupied by 4,494 families about fifteen years ago. The remaining land can be repossessed only through a formidable effort by the forest and revenue departments, backed by political resolve.

Dragging the issue

Politicising the issue, results in protests whenever the forest department decides to act upon court orders. Allegations of ‘anti-small farmer approach’ of the Forest Department have indefinitely dragged the issue without any solution for decades now. Protests by religious and political groups, claiming that these lands have houses, schools, panchayat offices and other living establishments; ultimately results in the government regularising these encroachments.

It is nonsense to say that small encroachers are the ones who are affected by evictions. A marginal farmer cannot run a coffee or rubber plantation. A large number of big and influential planters keep on expanding their estates by encroaching into neighbouring forests and revenue lands.

According to the National Forest Policy, 1988 and the government's Action Plan for Forests; 33.33 per cent of land area should be retained as forests. In the forests of Karnataka, 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 regularize 17,007.23 ha (in 21,569 cases) of forest land that had been encroached upon prior to April, 27, 1978 for non-forestry purposes under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act. The Centre had the areas surveyed, and in an order dated May 15, 1996 agreed to the regularization of 14,848.83 ha (involving 19,348 cases).

But an important feature of the Karnataka GO — that the Forest Department would "take immediate action to evict persons who had unauthorized 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.

In Karnataka most of the encroachments have been committed by immigrants from other states in the late 1970s. Interestingly, they did not enter the reserve forests, instead chose 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 forest land. The conflict between the local encroachers and those who had come from elsewhere, led to a law and order problem in 1996-97.

Forest encroachment is a contentious and intricate problem. Retrieval of revenue and forest land, from influential planters needs political resolve and not merely court orders. In 2012 Karnataka High Court granted time till December-end for 6,000 people to vacate their land.

All efforts by the court to reclaim the lost forest land are sabotaged by political conspiracy. This time around a meeting of legislators of districts, in which dwellers of forest land are being evicted by the forest department, has been convened in Bangalore on June 10 to discuss the issue. Let us hope that our new government will exhibit the political will to resolve the issue with due reflection on the livelihood of landless poor people and the profligacy of wealthy people in destroying our national wealth.

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