2% of India’s forest land is encroached
The largest area encroached on is in Madhya Pradesh with about 5347.17 sq km, or nearly 7%, of 7,7414 sq km of forests being occupied by squatters; followed by Assam (11.28%) and Odisha (1.5%), according to the ministry.Updated: Sep 28, 2019, 00:36 IST
Nearly 2%, or 13,000 sq km, of India’s total forest area is occupied by encroachers, the environment ministry has said in reply to a query filed under the Right to Information Act. India’s total forest cover is 708,273 sq km.
The largest area encroached on is in Madhya Pradesh with about 5347.17 sq km, or nearly 7%, of 7,7414 sq km of forests being occupied by squatters; followed by Assam (11.28%) and Odisha (1.5%), according to the ministry.
The RTI application was filed by Akash Vashisht, a Ghaziabad-based legal activist ,and the reply from the environment ministry was dated July 23. Vashisht received the reply in August and made it public on Friday.
“We have only compiled the encroachment data shared by states with us. These are not the latest figures,” said A K Prabhakar, assistant inspector general of forests. “State governments have the details of what [types of] encroachments these are .”
The environment ministry data is significant because the Supreme Court is hearing an 11-year-old public interest litigation (PIL) filed by wildlife activists challenging the Forest Rights Act (FRA). They contend that bogus claims filed under the FRA, which gives legitimate forest dwellers the right to reside in, cultivate and conserve forest land, have undermined efforts to conserve forests.
A bench led by justice Arun Mishra had on February 13 ordered the eviction of an estimated 1 million forest dwellers whose forest rights claims had been rejected. But the order was stayed on February 28 after the Centre and the Gujarat government sought its modification following concerns raised by tribal rights activists and experts.
The area encroached on may be occupied by squatters or being used for agriculture, or people may have carried out construction on forest land,said Siddhanta Das, director general of forests.
“States have settled some rights under Forest Rights Act and rejected some. But rejected claimants haven’t been evicted yet. The state governments should act on this,” Das said.
Experts say that the rights of legitimate forest dwellers haven’t been recognised in most states, which creates an impression that there is large-scale encroachment on forest land.
“Only 3% of community forest resource rights [right of forest dwellers to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any forest resource] and only 10 to 13% of individual forest rights have been recognised so far, according to government’s data. The encroachment data released by the environment ministry has to be verified because recognition of forest rights is incomplete in most states,” said Tushar Dash, researcher with Community Forest Rights —Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a non-governmental organisation.
“The forest department continues to treat tribals and forest dwellers as encroachers. However, the largest encroachment due to illegal forest diversions for projects, commercial monoculture plantations, huge land banks get ignored,” he added.
According to CFR-LA’s Promise and Performance report of 2016, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand were among laggard states when it came to implementation of the Forest Rights Act; Maharashtra, Odisha, Kerala and Gujarat were the better performing states.
States had recently informed the top court that an exercise has been undertaken to review the rejected claims and have appealed for time to complete the process. Eight states had also admitted before the apex court that the authorities had failed to follow due procedure under the law while deciding on the claims. The next date of hearing is November 26.
Several forest rights organisations have appealed to the top court to first address the issue of constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which has been challenged by wildlife organisations, instead of focusing on technical issues of implementation.