In a big relief to villagers of Karoran in SAS Nagar district, the Supreme Court, in a 10-year-old case, on Wednesday set aside the Punjab and Haryana high court order of treating the entire village area measuring about 3,700 acres, including the controversial Forest Hill Golf and Country Club, as forest land.
The high court decision had affected the property rights of villagers to carry on their respective occupations on their own land.
The Supreme Court not only remanded back the case to the high court for a fresh hearing and decision but also clarified that it had not set aside the high court's directions in the impugned order dated October 12, 2004, for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
It was on the basis of a news item published in Hindustan Times, 'Forest Hill Club under central government scanner' (January 1, 2004), that the high court had taken suo motu notice of the case.
HT had reported that the union ministry of environment and forests had found that the Forest Hill Golf and Country Club, spread over 378 acres and owned by Lt Col BS Sandhu (retd) at Karoran village (which was then in Rupnagar district), was being developed in blatant violation of the environmental and forest laws.
It had been reported that the club had granted honorary membership to top IAS, IPS and even judicial officers.
Later, the high court judgment of handing over the probe to the CBI was challenged before the Supreme Court, on which the decision came on Wednesday.
Apex court order
The bench comprising justices AK Patnaik and Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, while pronouncing the judgment, said, "Consequently, all directions in the impugned order which flow out of the aforesaid finding of the high court that the land was 'forest land' for the purpose of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, are set aside."
As per law, the land falling under Section 2 of the Act could not be diverted for non-forest activities without the prior permission of the central government.
The bench added that by recording a "blanket finding" that all land at Karoran village was forest land, "the high court has affected the legal rights of several villagers… who were carrying on their respective occupations on their land even before the enactment of the Act on October 25, 1980."
Appearing for the villagers, senior advocate Puneet Bali had submitted that the high court's finding that the entire land of Karoran notified under the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900, is 'forest land' was not correct in law and just because the land is under the administrative control of the forest department does not make it 'forest land'.
High court order
The high court had ordered Lt Col BS Sandhu (retd) to immediately close down the Forest Hill Country Club Resort and Golf Course with the direction for a thorough probe by a special investigating team of the CBI into the question of accountability of top executive and administrative officers facilitating the coming up of the club.
It was directed to demolish all illegally erected buildings of the club within three months and hand over the land to the Punjab forest department. The state government was directed to cancel all facilities provided to the club.
January 2004: HT reports illegalities; HC takes suo motu notice of HT report
October 12, 2004: HC orders CBI probe, orders club's demolition, declares Karoran forest land
December 6, 2004: Lt Col BS Sandhu (retd) approaches SC; SC stays club's demolition
May 21, 2014: SC remands back case for fresh decision to HC; sets aside HC order of treating entire Karoran as forest land.