Contempt notice to Konkan collectors for failure to transfer mangrove land to Maharashtra forest department
An environment group has issued contempt notices to all Konkan district collectors, the Konkan divisional commissioner, and state agency Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) for failing to hand over mangrove land under their jurisdiction to the Maharashtra forest department.
The direction to hand over mangrove areas to the forest department was first issued by the Bombay high court (HC) on October 6, 2005, that mangroves on government owned lands (including those belonging to state agencies) be handed over to the forest department within a period of 12 weeks from their declaration as protected forests. The HC reiterated its order on September 18, 2018. However, while district bodies are yet to hand over 1,592.8 hectare area (ha), state agencies such as JNPT have failed to transfer approximately 1,147 ha to the forest department falling under their jurisdiction.
Petitioner before the Bombay high court (HC) in various matters pertaining to mangrove and wetland conservation, environment group Vanashakti, issued the contempt notice through its counsel between last Friday and Tuesday. A period of seven days has been given to complete the transfer process or a contempt petition will be filed before the HC, the group said.
“Not transferring mangrove lands to the forest department for almost 15 years shows that there is no sense of rule of law and no fear of the law. This is a fit case to get an order of civil imprisonment of responsible officers or head of respective departments,” said Vanashakti counsel Zaman Ali.
A similar contempt notice had been issued to planning agency City Industrial Development Corporation Ltd. (Cidco) in October. However, the agency did not respond. “We are now forced to approach the HC for implementation of its orders and for mangrove conservation,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti.
Of the 30,200 ha mangrove forests across Maharashtra as per the Forest Survey of India, the state government has notified 15,312 ha as reserved forest under section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (the remaining area falls on private land). According to the state mangrove cell, 1,592.8 ha is yet to be handed over to them. Maximum area is under the Raigad collector’s jurisdiction (1,195.5 ha) followed by Mumbai suburban (242 ha), Sindhudurg (115.3 ha), Palghar (34.1 ha), and Thane (5.6 ha).
HT had reported on December 4 that state environment minister Aaditya Thackeray had decided to expedite and ease the transfer process of mangrove areas under the control of state agencies from January onwards after rectifying data gaps between the forest and revenue department. “The process is underway and results are expected soon. The enquiry into most areas under revenue department will be completed by January 15,” said a senior official from the environment department.
Stalin countered that if the process was not completed over 15 years, it was difficult to expect any improvement within a month. “The main beneficiaries of this contemptuous act are the real estate sharks. We have reminded all departments time and again to abide by court orders but the connivance at the level of higher officials is mind-boggling,” he alleged.
Konkan divisional commissioner Annasaheb Misal said the matter was being monitored by the state. District bodies said they had not received the notice and would respond accordingly. A senior official from JNPT said they needed to check their records before they could comment on the matter.
What does the law say?
Destruction of mangrove forests across Maharashtra and construction within 50m of mangrove areas was banned by the Bombay high court (HC) first in 2005 after a petition by the Bombay Environment Action Group. In September 2018, the HC bench of justice Abhay Oka and justice Riyaz Chagla passed its final order, which read: “Destruction of mangroves offended the fundamental rights of the citizens and hence it was a mandatory duty of the state and its agencies to protect and preserve the mangroves. All mangroves in the state are to be declared as protected or reserved forests, including land belonging to government agencies.”