The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wild confusion over forest fiat

Ranchi, Feb. 13: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s announcement that the government would regularise all settlements that have come up in forests before 1993 has drawn criticism, with opponents saying it flouts a Supreme Court ruling and other existing laws.

However, the Jharkhand government and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha have welcomed the Prime Minister’s assurance. The National Democratic Alliance, undeterred by the criticism, has also indicated its resolve to capitalise on the sop during the general elections.

External affairs minister Yashwant Sinha said this week that the announcement would have a positive impact during the general elections in the state. Regularisation of forest settlements has been a long-standing demand of tribals, Sinha pointed out. An estimated 686 villages in Jharkhand, covering more than 1,00,000 hectares, are likely to benefit from the regularisation, he said.

The announcement has, however, caused considerable confusion. Even those who have welcomed it have questioned the arbitrary cut-off year.

Forest department officials also point out that the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, stipulates that forest land cannot be used for any other purpose without the Centre’s permission. The Supreme Court extended the ambit of the act in 1996 when it directed that all land mentioned as jungle or jhadee in government records would be deemed as forest.

“We are bound to do what the government asks us to,” said principal chief conservator of forests J.L. Shrivastava, but contended that he is not aware of any government directive to this effect.

“There are 24 forest villages in Jharkhand, including three in the core area of Betla, which were set up by the forest department to facilitate official work. There are also around 150-200 houses in Betla forest villages. The department is actually engaged in shifting those villages out of the core area,” claimed a forest official.

The Prime Minister’s announcement has brought the exercise to a halt. The department had also issued notices to residents of many villages in Singhbhum, which were set up illegally in forest areas, to vacate the land.

The Congress has termed the announcement a “political stunt”, saying diverting forest land for agriculture would be disastrous.

The National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers has convened a meeting in New Delhi on February 22 and 23 to discuss the implications of Vajpayee’s assurance. The forum would continue to oppose legalisation of settlements illegally set up deep in forests by landlords and orchard owners, asserted its members.

“We are aware that there are several such settlements deep inside the jungles in the Poreiyahat region in Singhbhum district, in the Betla tracts in Palamau and the Hazaribagh ranges. These settlements have been established by outsiders with an intent to grab tribal and forest lands. We shall continue to demand eviction of these illegal settlements,” Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan spokesperson Sanjay Basu Mullik told The Telegraph.

The forest workers’ forum also plans to challenge the legal validity of the 1993 deadline announced by the Prime Minister.

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