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‘Encroachers’ threaten to flout eviction diktat

Mangalore, Dec. 29: Thousands of settlers face the threat of eviction from land they have occupied for years in the hilly regions of Karnataka, particularly South Canara.

In the districts of Dakshina Kannada, comprising areas like Mangalore, Balthangadi, Chikamagalur and Shimoga, numerous farmers have received eviction notices, but a large majority of them has announced their intention not to follow the government order. The farmers have organised themselves under the banner of the Malnad Raitha Hitha Samrakshana Samithi (Hill Farmers’ Protection Society) and held a rally on December 9, attended by over 15,000 farmers.

The government move follows a 1997 Supreme Court order, directing 11 state governments, including Karnataka, to evict settlers who have encroached on forests after 1980. The court had upheld the petition of T.M. Godavarman Thirumalkkapad that sought directives from the apex court to protect the ecological balance and environmental diversity in India.

A committee set up by the Centre in November 2001 to implement the directive has been monitoring the steps taken by the state governments. Karnataka began its effort to implement the order from last September.

The turbulence among hundreds of settlers has been aggravated by the perception that the state government is implementing the order in an irrational and unscientific manner. Scores of farmers of Dakshina Kannada said they have been living on the land they have been asked to vacate from well before 1980. But the administration was not accepting their claims.

“I have documents to prove that our family was allotted the land in the mid-70s, but the government has sent me an evacuation notice,” said Rajan Achari of Balthangadi.

Another settler, Thankappan, vouched that he and his family have been living in the area for more than two-and-a-half decades and the government could take the land only over his dead body. There are thousands of equally angry settlers and their anger does not bode well for the government or the society.

Father Salil Thomas, who has emerged as one of the leading lights of the Malnad Raitha Hitha Samrakshana Samithi, said over 1,12,000 settlers are facing eviction in different districts of Karnataka. “While some of these settlers could fall within the ambit of the Supreme Court’s definition of encroachers, the fact is that a majority of them are legal claimants to the land they hold. It is unfair to force them out of these legitimate holdings,” Thomas said.

He emphasised that the fault lies with the government machinery, which has not been able to demarcate clearly between forestland and revenue land. “The struggle of these farmers is not against the Supreme Court’s order, but against the government machinery that has failed to differentiate between legitimate holders of land and illegal occupants,” Thomas added.

Advocate J.K. Paul, another activist associated with the farmers’ body, said the government’s failure in this regard is not confined to Dakshina Kannada alone. “Districts like Coorg face a similar problem and once they also get into the path of agitation, the government will be forced look up and take notice,” he added.

Senior officials of the environment department dismissed the samithi’s claims and said a majority of the “settlers” are “encroachers”.

“That will be proved in due course,” said one official, who did not want to be named for fear of political intervention in his departmental activities.

Sections of officials believe the samithi is essentially trying to protect the interests of Keralite and Tamil settlers and that barely 10 per cent of Karnataka farmers have complaints against the government’s methods to implement the Supreme Court’s directive. This is one line of argument that is bound to aggravate the unrest among the settlers.

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