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792 sqkm of private forest unprotected: Maha forest department

The area is about eight times the size of Mumbai’s Borivli national park

mumbai Updated: Mar 05, 2018 10:56 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Maharashtra,forest department
In December last year, the state lifted curbs on sale and purchase of private forest land with owners being allowed to freely sell their land for those plots that have been restored by the district administration to private owners. (HT FILE )

Details from the forest conservation unit of the state forest department revealed that of the 2,709 sqkm private forest area in Maharashtra, located mostly in Konkan, around 792 sqkm — roughly eight times the size of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) — remains unprotected.

The isolated patches, home to several wildlife corridors, do not have demarcated boundaries on the ground, and are located in Thane, Pune, Kolhapur, Raigad, Alibaug, Jawahar, and some parts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, said officials.

Some of the them are adjacent to or linked to buffer areas of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries such as SGNP towards the Thane-end, Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and several ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats — Bhimashanker Wildlife Sanctuary in Pune district, Karnala Bird Sanctuary and Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigad, isolated patches in Junnar district, Lonavla, Khandala, Amby Valley and Lavasa.

“The areas under our jurisdiction are being managed scientifically, but it has become very difficult to manage the 792 sqkm, home to good biodiversity, which is under threat,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forest, (APCCF Conservation), state forest department headquarters at Nagpur. “Even some areas that have been restored have not been demarcated because of the unavailability of a map. However, our department is undertaking a special drive to demarcate such forests.”

The Maharashtra Private Forests (Acquisition) Act, 1975, which came into force in August 30, 1975, identified 2,709 sqkm private forests — forest land under private ownership — as ‘deemed reserved forests’ and the state took over these areas under regulatory control with the responsibility of conserving their resources and protecting them from destruction, over-exploitation by their owners and promoting systematic, scientific development and management of such forests.

Of the 2,709 sqkm, over time, 951 sqkm was legally acquired by the state and 938 sqkm was given back to land owners after due diligence by the district administration. However, the remaining 792 sqkm remains under enquiry with the legal status ‘deemed Reserved Forest’. There are 216 pending cases being heard by the Bombay high court or cases are pending for enquiry by the district administration, said Tembhurnikar. “There is a misconception among people that the forest department is acquiring land without due diligence. However, for any such case, the department is only implementing the rules and provisions of the Act and then acquiring these forests as per the act’s guidelines,” he said.

“As soon as the act came into force, there was no need for the government to take possession. People, however, called it a draconian act as they saw that the land was taken over by the government. However, the state back then only took over these areas keeping in mind water, soil and forest security,” said Tembhurnikar. “After a lot of hue and cry, the act was amended in 1978 where a provision was made that the district collector would be empowered to partially or fully restore forest land acquired from private owners back to them, but with a rider that the land holding should not exceed 12 hectares, sufficient to address their livelihood issues.”

In December last year, the state lifted curbs on sale and purchase of private forest land with owners being allowed to freely sell their land for those plots that have been restored by the district administration to private owners (less than 12 hectares).

Other officials from the forest department said after the promulgation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, a law that completely restricted any sale or purchase of forest lands, all previous acquisitions became null and void. “We have now requested the central government and also raised the matter in Supreme Court to uncomplicated the problem, and issue guidelines for better protection of these areas,” said Virendra Tiwari, chief conservator of forest (Mantralaya)

The forest department has now appealed to district collectors to expedite the enquiry proceedings for better protection forest and of wildlife. “Unless the district administration decides the matters expeditiously, the situation is worrisome. There will better protection of forest resources and wildlife once litigations settle down and boundaries demarcated,” said Tembhurnikar.

First Published: Mar 05, 2018 09:25 IST