The Supreme Court’s order asking the Maharashtra government to evict an illegal ashram inside Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary is a major victory for environmentalists who have been trying, for more than a decade, to get the encroachers removed from the forest. Tungareshwar, which is around 85.70 sq. km in area, is connected to other protected natural areas like the Nagla block of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary’s diverse habitats, including littoral forests and hills, is home to leopards, wild boars, Indian muntjac (barking deer), langurs, bonnet and rhesus macaques, among other animals.The Balayogi Shree Sadanand Maharaj ashram had occupied forest land in the seventies, before the area was declared as a protected sanctuary. Forest officials and environmentalists, who had visited the site in November, said the ashram has grown in size by encroaching into the surrounding forest. A six-km dirt track, connecting the shrine to Vasai-Virar, has been converted into a paved road after blasting hillsides. The ashram now occupies around 1.7 acres. The Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) filed an application in July 2004 in the courts for the eviction of the ashram, saying that the encroachment violates various laws, including the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Religious shrines are major encroachers of forest land in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). Krishna Tiwari of Forest and Wildlife Conservation Society estimates there are at least a dozen illegal temples and four dargahs inside SGNP. “In the last 20-25 years I have seen these shrines encroaching on more land day by day. There have been no major attempts to remove these encroachments except in 2012/2013 in the Yeoor area,” says Tiwari.It has been difficult for forest officials to remove the shrines because they have support of local politicians and a large number of devotees. In 2010, forest officials at SGNP were attacked when they tried to stop visitors at the Urs - the annual festival at a dargah - from carrying inflammable material like fire crackers and lighting equipment into the forest. Environmentalists said that the (shrine) trust is now pressuring the government to get the site declared as an archaeological site so that it cannot be demolished, but there are no records establishing the dargah’s antiquity. In April 2013, forest officials demolished three ashrams – occupying a total area of 20 acres – in the Yeoor forest. One of the ashrams had been there since the fifties when the area was not a protected forest. In 2014, when the head of this ashram died, his followers tried to bury the body at the site of the demolished ashram. Forest officials said this was done to encroach on the forest again. A decade ago, forest officials had tried to enter the Tungareshwar ashram after reports that inmates had kept captive peacocks in the premises but were stopped by a mob of devotees. “The ashram was half-constructed and though there were signs at the gate that photography is not permitted, we managed to get photos of the half-complete building,” says Tiwari, who had accompanied the government team. The state has been given two months to carry out the court’s order on the Tungareshwar ashram. The ashram has said it will contest the demolition order. The forest department will find it difficult to carry out the apex court’s order, especially because the ashram has a large following in the Vasai-Virar area. “The government machinery should learn from experience and be more prepared this time and not come back without completing the operation,” said an environmentalist. Environmentalists are hoping that after the Tungareshwar shrine is removed, attention shifts to the other shrines encroaching forest land. “Somebody should petition the courts for the removal of these encroachments as soon as possible. The shrines are expanding and it will be difficult to evict them,” said Tiwari.