About 10 days after the Hindustan Times revealed how illegally-built sprawling farmhouses have wiped out hundreds of acres of precious forestland in south Delhi's Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary, the forest department has finally set out on a demolition drive.
The campaign, the first of its kind, started after the top three functionaries of the forest department – the secretary, additional principal chief conservator of forests, and chief wildlife warden – appeared before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), following a summon to explain the large-scale encroachment in the area.
The NGT gave the three officials four weeks to finish demarcation of forest boundaries – a task pending for 18 years – and removal of encroachments, particularly in south Delhi's Neb Sarai area, where a large number of unauthorised apartment buildings have sprouted.
On Tuesday, Delhi's chief secretary - the senior most bureaucrat - held a meeting with officials and ordered them to take stern action against intruders in the 6,814-acre sanctuary, where more than 50 illegal farmhouses are suspected to have been built over the years.
Read: Farmhouses rob 400 acres of Delhi’s forest
On Monday, the forest department retrieved three acres of land and fenced it. This area had no construction on it, but there was resistance whenever attempts were made to take its custody.?
The otherwise sleepy and serene sanctuary woke up to the whir of heavy earth-moving machines on Tuesday as the administration got cracking. The air was thick with dust raised by whirling cars.
Roaring JCB machines prowled the vicinity, as bricks crashed to the ground every now and then. Onlookers gathered around with curiosity. Some of them had a line or two in protest to vent.
Three top officials — conservator of forests, his deputy and a forest protection and management officer — reached plot number 1,677 (spread in 232 bighas) in Asola village around 11am.
Demolition started at 12.30pm and it took about four hours to raze a 528-metre-long and 11-foot-high wall.
"Today we targeted a plot spread over 232 bighas (about 93 acres) in Asola village. We used two earth-moving JCB machines to raze a 528-metre-long and 11-foot-high wall," said conservator of forests Suneesh Buxy.
The chief wildlife warden, AK Shukla, told HT, "We're on the job. We will not rest till the entire forest land currently under illegal occupation is retrieved".
The team was equipped with encroachment details provided by the revenue department. A geographic information system (GIS) expert also helped them in the exercise.
Buxy said: "We started with the boundary walls. Our drive would target rooms in the illegal farmhouses. We're issuing notices. Those who don't respond will face demolition and also bear the cost".
The demolition had been necessitated after the NGT criticised the forest department for the large-scale encroachments in the ridge, of which the sanctuary is a part.
The green tribunal on Tuesday asked the department that if the forest land was notified way back in 1996, why were the boundaries not been fixed even after 18 years.
Chief wildlife warden Shukla said, "We informed the court that village heads distributed part of the notified land to people under a government welfare scheme called 20-point programme. It has taken a lot of time for us to settle forest rights because most land records are in a mutilated state".
Reacting to an HT report dated March 15, Delhi's chief secretary had wondered how encroachment in Delhi's lone wildlife sanctuary was increasing by the day.
"This is not possible without official apathy, recklessness and callousness," he had said.