Amendment to land preservation Act nullifies efforts to protect Haryana’s forest areas
On September 11 last year, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of Kant Enclave, a residential colony n Faridabad, on grounds that it was built on “forest land”. The judgment was celebrated by environmentalists, who called it a milestone in a years-long legal battle to protect the Aravalli range in Haryana, which has been denuded by real estate and mining activities over the last two decades, often with the sanction of the state.
“The Kant Enclave judgment was first time that the Supreme Court directly held the Haryana government responsible for environmental degradation in the Aravallis because of real estate activity, and also sought action against those responsible, including state officials,” said Sarvadaman Oberoi, a city-based activist.
Most significantly, the apex court upheld what environmentalists like Oberoi have maintained for years, that the Aravallis in Haryana are forests, and should be protected under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
Underlining this claim, and the apex court’s decision, is a colonial-era law known as the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), implemented in 1900 and meant — as the name suggests — to ‘preserve’ land in undivided Punjab. The Act did this by curbing certain activities, like the felling of trees for timber, quarrying for rocks, agriculture, herding and other pastoral preoccupations, on land notified under the PLPA.
“Any human intervention which could alter the structural complexity of the ecosystem was prohibited, as it could affect availability of sub-surface water, alter the landscape, lead to biodiversity loss and other unpredictable consequences. The British realised this,” said Pia Sethi, a senior fellow at The Energy Research Institute, Delhi.
Oberoi, who has studied the history of the Act, added that it was initially meant for protection of the Shivalik hills, and that the Aravallis were brought under its purview in the 1950s. In a modern reading of the PLPA, its prohibitions extend to constructions such as Kant Enclave, which is built on PLPA notified land in the Aravallis in Faridabad.
In its September 11 judgment, the SC said, “We have no doubt that land notified by the State of Haryana under the provisions of the PLP Act must be treated as ‘forest’ and ‘forest land’.” Now, six months later, with the state government’s amendment to the 119-year-old law, environmentalists fear that the SC’s seminal judgment, and the arduous legal battle to protect the Aravallis, will have been for nought.
Since 1927, India has enacted two major laws to protect its forests. These are the Forest Act, 1927, which was superseded after independence by the Forest Conservation Act. Environmentalists believe that, in an ideal world, all the Aravallis in Haryana should have been notified under the latter, when it was enacted in 1980.
“However, this could not be done as PLPA lands have traditionally been owned by panchayats. To be notified as protected or reserve forests, the land cannot be owned by anyone. This is one of the main reasons why PLPA lands in Gurugram and Faridabad were not brought into the ambit of the FCA,” explained a city administration official.
In the absence of protection under the FCA, lawyers and environmentalists have spent decades in convincing the apex court that PLPA lands are just as ecologically sensitive, even if their ownership histories do not align with the criteria required by ‘protected’ or ‘reserved’ forests.
This legal history goes back decades, traverses multiple cases, and has drawn on the court’s wisdom in other landmark judgments relating to the environment, such as the Lafarge, Godavarman and MC Mehta cases. It culminated in the Kant Enclave verdict, which was unequivocal in its understanding of the relation between the Forest Conservation Act and the PLPA.
Activists say that the amended PLPA Act will effectively allow Haryana to subvert Supreme Court decisions that support protection of forest areas.
“This is the exact opposite of what governments should be doing with land that is forest, in a state which has the least forest cover in the country,” said Sunil Harsana, a conservationist from Mangar village in Faridabad. According to a 2011 survey by Wildlife Institute of India, Haryana has only 3.59% of forest cover, the least in the country. “The amendment will pave the way for many other violations like Kant Enclave which will eat into this limited forest area, only this time they will be legal,” Harsana added.
According to RP Balwan, former conservator of forests, “The forest department has been trying to convince the government and the Supreme Court for years that these lands are extremely significant.” He added that Haryana forest department itself has on multiple counts recorded PLPA land as forest land, but now “seems to be out of the loop ”. Vinod Saxena, principal chief conservator of forests, confirmed that his department had not received a copy of the 2019 draft amendment bill, and was not consulted.
Ritwik Dutta, an environmental lawyer, says that this goes against the grain of good governance. “While it doesn’t necessarily make the amendment illegal, it raises doubts as to why there was no inter-departmental co-ordination on the issue, especially as the Supreme Court says these lands are forests.This implies that the forest department does have a say in these matters and should have been consulted.”
When Haryana government, intermittently sought to exclude these lands from the PLPA, the court “declined to permit the state of Haryana to do a somersault and contend that land closed under the PLPA Act is not forest”.