It looks as if encroached forest land is the most sacred piece of real estate in the state. Or else, why would state governments consider the recovery of usurped forest lands as something as sensitive as meddling in the affairs of a religious order.
The total encroached forest land in the state, according to figures placed in the State Assembly, is 19,277 acres.
In September 2015, the High Court had directed that the recovery should be completed within a year, which is by September 2016.
Forget the deadline. Even two and a half years after the deadline, the Forest Department has managed to get back only less than 300 acres, or nothing more than 1.5 per cent of the encroached land in the state.
The Forest Department had already filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking more time to complete the eviction proceedings.
This might give the impression that a bit more time was all that was enough for the government to effectively complete the task.
Reality is, the government is least interested. Not just the present government, even the earlier ones had found recovering stolen forest lands politically risky.
Political hot potato
Political parties find it wise to turn a blind eye to encroachment. This political indifference leaves forest officials high and dry.
Last year, forest officials had made an attempt to recover 15 acres of fresh encroachment by a group that was already in illegal possession of 100-odd acres of forest land.
“Local leaders of all political parties unitedly fought back the forest officials,” a top Forest Department official said.
“We did not even touch the 100-odd acres that were already encroached, but only the 15 acres that were freshly encroached upon by the party in 2018,” the official added. The forest official receive no help from the police or the district administration.
The encroachers are not an abstract mass. The state clearly knows who they are, and the extent of land they have occupied.
A survey had been conducted and the list of all encroachers, and the rough extent of their encroachment, has been submitted to the concerned district collectors.
Fertile land for encroachers
Problem is, this list will not have any value until the Forest Department clearly demarcates encroachments before January 1, 1977.
Encroachments before 1977 have been regularised. “Since even these older encroachments have not been defined properly using boundary markers it is convenient for those who had encroached after 1977 to claim that they too had encroached before 1977,” the Forest Department source said.
For instance, in the northern parts of the state, title deeds have still not been distributed to families who had encroached before 1977.
The Kerala Land Assignment (Regularisation of Occupations of Forest Lands Prior to January 1, 1997) Special Rules was issued in 1993.
Though the joint verification of lands encroached before 1977 was completed in 1992, a year before the Rules were issued, boundary markers were not planted.
This official failure has given the post-1977 encroachers the chance to play the victim.
They argue that they were pre-1977 settlers and were being unnecessarily persecuted by the Forest Department.
They now want a second joint verification. Forest officials feel that this is a ploy to further delay eviction.
The second joint verification is presently on at Wayanad, Kozhikode, Mannarkad and Nilambur. Significantly, the largest encroachments are in Mannarkad (6672.54 acres), Wayanad (4297.14 acres) and Nilambur divisions (1691 acres).
There is another curious fact. None of these encroachers who now cry foul have not bothered to take the government to court for including them in the list of encroachers.
“It is a clear sign that they are confident that they will not be evicted,” the official said.
The official machinery also uses a bit of deception to save the illegal settlers. They make moves that seem proper, even courageous, but in truth are only attempts to give the encroachers time. Take for instance the Forest Department's practice of serving eviction notices. This, many say, is baffling because the Kerala Forest Act, 1961, allows summary eviction of encroachers.
In the Kerala Government vs Mathai Kuriakose case in 1988, the High Court had also found nothing illegal in summary eviction. Further, it has also been established that encroachers have no rights.
Field level officials of the Forest Department consider swift eviction the most effective way to recover encroached land.
“In Nelliampathy, for instance, the only lands that have stayed with the department are the ones that were summarily evicted. Wherever notices were issued, the encroachers had gone to court and secured a stay,” a forest official said.