Only 10% encroachments in Maharashtra’s forests cleared in one year: Ministry data
Of the 61,579sqkm total forest cover in the state, 604sqkm is under encroachment in Maharashtra in 2019.
The state has managed to clear 66sqkm, only 9.8%, of the encroachments eating into protected or reserved forest areas in Maharashtra in 2018.
Of the 61,579sqkm total forest cover in the state, 604sqkm is under encroachment in Maharashtra in 2019, according to data submitted by the Union environment ministry before the Rajya Sabha on Friday. The figure was 670sqkm in 2018. For comparison, as per the Surveyor General of India, the area of Greater Mumbai is 603sqkm.
According to the data, Maharashtra ranked fourth in the country among states with maximum encroachment, after Madhya Pradesh, Assam, and Odisha. Last year, Maharashtra ranked five, but over the past year, Karnataka managed to reduce encroachments by 74%, the data showed.
“While some forest zones continue to face threat from encroachment, we have managed an overall drastic reduction of 66sqkm over the past year,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forest (conservation), state forest department, in-charge of encroachment removal in the state. “Encroachment removal drives were undertaken in all districts. Positive results were witnessed in Pune, Nagpur and Amravati forest circles.”
The main cause for concern was the claims being made by villagers and tribals under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) that they are original inhabitants carrying out agricultural practices within protected forest areas, said Tembhurnikar. “As there is no final date fixed yet for accepting claims under FRA, the actual possession of forest land by private landowners is much more than what is being claimed. This poses a threat to forest biodiversity.”
The Maharashtra forest department’s district-wise data showed that Dhule had the highest forest area under encroachment, while Thane and Mumbai forest zones had maximum encroachment cases. “The situation is changing in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region with special powers given to assistant conservator of forest under the land revenue code to issue eviction orders directly,” said Tembhurnikar. “Additionally, the forest department is taking immediate cognisance of complaints received on the helpline 1926.”
Encroaching on forest land for cultivation and other purposes leads to biodiversity loss, man-animal conflicts and reduction of protected forest habitats, thereby altering the natural balance of such ecologically sensitive areas. “The forest department needs to pursue this drive with more vigour else we will lose more wildlife habitats and our water security will be greatly threatened,” said Stalin D, director, Mumbai based non-profit Vanashakti, petitioner in Bombay high court (HC) for declaration of critical wildlife habitats in Maharashtra.
Wildlife experts said the current quantum of encroachments poses human-animal conflict threat, especially for the tiger dominated landscape in Vidarbha. “Owing to improper forest demarcation or boundary walls, villages close to reserved forest indulge in tree felling and usurp forest land for agricultural purposes, moving closer to areas dominated by carnivores,” said Nitin Desai, director (central India), Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
Ecologists, however, are sceptical about the data. “In many districts, forest areas are being opened to private land owners with the department submitting false and misconstrued reports of encroachment. The solution is formation of community reserves, wherein tribals or local inhabitants around forests work in tandem with the department for forest produce and safety of wildlife,” said Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010.