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SC stalls govt forest trespass
- Blow to NDA attempt to woo tribals with gift of 200,000 hectares on election-eve

New Delhi, Feb. 23 (PTI): The Supreme Court today stayed a series of orders passed by the Centre to regularise encroachment on forests and give land rights to tribals by jeopardising over 200,000 hectares of forest.

The stay could take the wind out of the ruling National Democratic Alliance’s move to woo tribals ahead of elections.

A bench comprising Chief Justice V.. Khare and Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and Arijit Passayat passed the order while hearing an application by amicus curiae Harish Salve which objected to an advertisement issued by the Centre. The advertisement detailed the “revolutionary steps taken by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee” in giving land rights to tribals staying in the forests before December 31, 1993.

Objecting to the advertisement, the bench issued a notice to the Centre and said the decisions taken in regard to “dereserving” the forest land in Madhya Pradesh and Tripura “be not implemented”. It asked the government to reply within four weeks.

Salve said the Centre should have approached the court before issuing land rights as the apex court had not even agreed to the environment and forests ministry’s request to permit regularisation of all pre-1980 encroachments on forests.

The bench said: “It is strange that for diversion of forest land for public purposes like building of dams… the government had been approaching the court regularly but not in this case.”

Salve said the ministry had decided in a February 5, 2004 order to regularise all encroachments on forest land up to December 31, 1993 as against the earlier cut-off date of October 25, 1980. The decision included conversion of nearly 200,000 hectares of forest land in Madhya Pradesh and 14,539 hectares in Tripura into revenue land.

Salve said unless the decision was stayed, “no encroachments can be removed”, opening the way for encroachments that would endanger the forests.

Solicitor-general Kirit . Raval urged the court to give the Centre some time to take corrective measures if an error had been made. But the bench refused to do so, saying if decisions were made inoperative for three months nobody would insist on their implementation.

Salve said: “The Moef (ministry)’s recent series of orders will have disastrous consequences to the forests of this country which would lead to serious ecological problems, destroy the life-supporting systems of nature, destroy the hydrology which (will) result in water famines, destroy bio-diversity and food security by adversely affecting the agriculture and also seriously threaten the ecological security of the country.”

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