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Govt notified his land as forest, Uttarakhand man wins it back — after 43 years

Lokmani Sharma, now 58, says he has spent his life’s earnings in fighting the case in courts --- from local to the Supreme Court .

dehradun Updated: Mar 28, 2017 20:32 IST
Chetan Chauhan and Nihi Sharma
Chetan Chauhan and Nihi Sharma
Hindustan Times
uttarakhand udhamsinghnagar,forestland,supremecourt
The state forest department citing Indian Forest Act of 1927 notified the agriculture land in 1974 as forest saying there were “full-grown” trees on the land.(HT File)

New Delhi/Dehradun: His agriculture land was notified as forest land. He was arrested for “encroaching” upon the land, which was rightfully his, but which the government claimed was its. For Uttarakhand resident Lokmani Sharma, it was no less than a nightmare.

It took 43 years, and a protracted legal battle for Sharma to end the nightmare and reclaim his land --- all 2.27 hectares of it. His battle ended this month, when an environment ministry committee vested the land back to him.

Sharma, now 58, says he has spent his life’s earnings in fighting the case in courts --- from local to the Supreme Court --- despite possessing records showing that the agriculture land was leased to his father by a former zamindar, Damodar Pant, in Udham Singh Nagar, about 200 kms east of Dehradun, more than half a century ago.

In revenue records, the land was in Sharma’s name as Bhumidar (one who has land possession) with transferrable rights.

The state forest department, however, took refuge under the colonial Indian Forest Act of 1927 to notify his agriculture land in 1974 as forest saying there were “full-grown” trees on the land, which Sharma claimed was a plantation done by him.

The forest department was not willing to listen to him and declared his land as reserve forest under the law turning him into an encroacher on his own land. That was beginning of a long ordeal in which he was arrested in 1988 on a complaint by the forest department. “I was arrested but also received bail immediately,” Sharma told HT.

Sharma challenged the notification in local court, which upheld his claim but the forest department appealed at every level till the Supreme Court rejected its plea. The apparent reason for dragging the case was that admitting its mistake would have meant holding its own officials guilty of wrong-doing, a probable reason for the government being the biggest litigant in the country.

The government is litigant in around half of 30 million cases pending in courts in India, a reason for delay in delivery of justice. In 2010, Justice V V Rao of Andhra Pradesh high court had said that it would take 320 years for the Indian judiciary to clear the pending cases.

“I am not a rich man who has properties and white collar job. I had only that piece of land on which I was dependent. How could I let go of it?,” Sharma asked.

Sharma and many others may not have to suffer at hand of foresters in future as the environment ministry now plans to curb such “absolute” powers under the law, which the British used to control forest for running highly profitable timber business and penalising locals for using any forest produce.

“We have constituted a committee to remove colonial legacy of the forest law and revamp it in tune with modern India,” said a senior environment ministry official, adding that the committee will submit its report soon.

Sharma got his land back after the environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) earlier this month decided to de-notify the 2.27 hectares of land as forest land. As per the law, while the state governments can notify any land as reserve forest, the de-notification can be done only by the central government.

“I knew one thing that this land was the only support system for my family. So, despite all odds I fought against the system,” Sharma said.

First Published: Mar 28, 2017 20:32 IST