Maharashtra has lost forest land bigger than the size of Mumbai to encroachers
Maharashtra ranks fifth among states that have lost maximum forest areas to encroachers. Of the state’s 61,579 square kilometre (sq km) of forests, which is a fifth of its geographical area, encroachers have taken over 670sq km — more than the area of Greater Mumbai, which is 603sq km.
The data on forest encroachments was submitted by the Union environment ministry in Rajya Sabha last month.
Nationally, encroachments cover 13,612sq km of nearly 7,64,000-lakh sq km forest cover – 23% of the country’s land. The forest area encroached nationally is roughly 10 times the size of New Delhi (1,400sq km).
Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka and Odisha have the largest stretches of encroached forest lands, followed by Maharashtra.
Diversion of land for cultivation and other purposes continues to be the most serious threat to forests. The conversion of forests to farms and other uses leads to biodiversity loss and man-animal conflicts, thereby altering the natural balance, said experts.
“Our idea has always been zero tolerance to encroachment. However, we are facing three main concerns when it comes to this issue in Maharashtra – increasing agricultural practices by tribal settlements, construction of religious structures, and increasing urbanisation near tier I and II cities.
“This is not only eating into the habitat of animals but changing the natural biodiversity of forests,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forest (conservation), Maharashtra forest department, in-charge of encroachment removal in the state.
Most cases of forest encroachment in Maharashtra in 2017 was reported from Mumbai Metropolitan Region, data from the state forest department showed.
With 49,463 cases from Thane spread across 973 hectares, and 33,850 cases from Mumbai spread across 6,170 hectares, the two districts had the highest number of cases in the state.
However, area wise, the maximum encroachments were from Dhule with 15,076 cases spread across 207 sqkm, followed by Gadchiroli with 8,969 cases spread across 103 sq km. The data on forest encroachments was submitted by the Union environment ministry in the Rajya Sabha in December, 2017.
Environmentalists said that encroachments cut forest corridors that animals use to move from one forest area to another.
“There needs to be a detailed study about the forms of encroachment across different forest areas in India. We are fast losing protected spaces and wildlife habitats. Encroachments around rivers will affect the river flow for years. It is our responsibility to preserve what remains of these areas,” said Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (India). “The forest department and the political leadership are fighting this issue but efforts need to be escalated,” he said.
The environment ministry blamed states for not protecting forest areas. “It is the responsibility of states governments to ensure forest encroachments are removed at the earliest,” said an official from the ministry.
State forest departments said that claims to land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) pose as the main hurdle in clearing encroachments.
Virendra Tiwari, chief conservator of forest, Maharashtra, said the FRA allowed tribal communities and villages within protected forests to carry out agricultural practices.
“Prior to this, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, did not allow any encroachment,” said Tiwari. He added that most encroachments are from the time before FRA came into existence. “There are several cases where the FRA is being manipulated. The entire process to hear claims is extremely lengthy,” he said.
Last month, the state forest department headquarters in Nagpur issued orders to the chief conservator of forests in every district to create a list of encroachments in their jurisdiction. “The idea is to document the number of encroachments on a year-on-year basis and ensure their speedy removal,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forest (conservation) who is in-charge of encroachment removal in the state.
“We are in the process of building a stronger network not only to remove encroachments, but also to fight wildlife crimes,” said the official from the ministry.
In Mumbai, where human settlements are closing in on the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, work is under way to create a boundary wall around the forest. “Similar plans have been devised for forest areas around Pune and Nagpur,” said Tiwari, adding that this will also control the proliferation of religious shrines that become footholds for new settlements.
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