Why evicting forest encroachers is too tricky a task for the Forest Department was demonstrated in the Assembly on Wednesday. The day saw the chief minister contradicting, almost belittling, his forest minister and then, in a rare counterpunch of sorts, the minister bouncing back with a reaffirmation of his position.
Forest minister K Raju was emphatic when he said in the Assembly that encroachments that had taken place after the cut off date of January 1, 1977, was unacceptable. The minister was just reiterating the long-held policy of the Forest Department.
But Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan butted in to say that it was unfair to evict people from lands for which they had been paying taxes for years. "We cannot have a policy where people who had been living in these areas are troubled unnecessarily," he said. The forest minister, who was clearly caught off guard, did not attempt to contradict the chief minister at that point. So it looked like the chief minister had the final word.
However, Raju did reassert himself a few minutes later when a specific question about eviction was posed to him by P C George. "As I have said before, those who have settled in forest areas before 1977 will not be disturbed. But if there is fresh encroachment, we will have no choice but to initiate eviction proceedings," the minister said. This time the chief minister did not respond.
Even among the opposition there were differing voices. While Muslim League's C Mammutty wanted post-1977 encroachments to be dealt with sternly, his own party member P K Basheer argued it was cruel.
Onmanorama had earlier reported that the Forest Department had managed to get back only less than 300 acres, not more than even 1.5 per cent of the 19,000-odd acres of forest land encroached after 1977. The forest minister himself acknowledged the difficulties in removing encroachments. "Local opposition and court stays have stood in the way of demarcating clear boundaries," the minister said in the Assembly. "This delay has heightened the possibility of fresh encroachments," he added.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, too, had pulled up the Forest Department for dereliction. "The Department failed to prevent encroachments made after the regularisation of occupation of forest land as on 1 January, 1977, in spite of being empowered under Section 66 of the Forest Act, 1961," the CAG report tabled in November, 2018, said.
According to Rule 26 of the Forest Settlement Rules, 1965, when a forest land is notified as reserve forest under Section 19 of the Forest Act, 1961, the chief conservator of forest should immediately take necessary steps to demarcate the boundaries of the land by construction of permanent cairns (jandas). "Non-demarcation of forest boundaries with cairns facilitated encroachments," the CAG, too, said.
To get a measure of the Department's failure, ponder this fact. Even though the last reserve forest was notified 32 years ago, the construction of a total of 41,880 cairns were still pending.