Satellite imagery that speaks the truth, falls by wayside in podu land patta rush

HYDERABAD: The forest department could have well tied itself into intractable knots over the state government’s promise of providing pattas for 11.5 lakh- odd acres of forest land for the so-called podu cultivation. The department’s documents indicate that when fresh applications for podu land claims were called for by the government in November 2021, only a little over 7.29 lakh acres were recorded as forest land occupied for cultivation in different districts.

The additional claims of 4.21 lakh since November 2021, and the reluctance of its officials to authenticate such claims, were one of the primary reasons why the forest department instructed its district officials to provide scanned signatures to be used on podu land pattas.

With such large tracts of forest land coming under occupation suddenly — and worried about the government not being able to keep its promise of pattas to the applicants — the state tribal welfare department “requested” district collectors “to take necessary action” on the applications with respect to the use of satellite imagery to verify the new claims.

The fear, according to sources in the government, was that use of satellite imagery would lay bare that most, if not all, claims received following the November 2021 call for applications, would have to be rejected as they would be discovered as forest land occupied after the December 2005 cut-off date as per the Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006.

Such has been the fear of overuse of satellite imagery in a state that prides itself on the use of technology for governance, that the tribal welfare department fished out a July 2012 letter from the Union tribal welfare ministry in support of its fiat against the use of satellite imagery.

In the 2012 letter, the ministry had said that “any technology, such as satellite imagery, should be used to supplement evidence tendered by the claimant for consideration of the claim and not to replace other evidence submitted by him in support of his claim as the only form of evidence.”

Currently, the state tribal welfare department has allowed a ration card or a similar identity proof for an individual making podu land claims post the 2021 invitation, along with verbal evidence from any ‘village elder’ to prove that the claimant was indeed in possession — prior to December 2005, and for three generations — on the forest land for which a claim has been made.

Nearly all claims for podu land pattas under consideration of the government now fall into this category of relying on ‘village elders’ authenticating the claims, sources in the government said.

In the few instances where forest department officials insisted on introducing satellite imagery during the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) meetings verifying the new claims, these actions were rejected, sources said.

And even when the introduction of satellite imagery was recorded in the minutes of the DLC meeting, they were subsequently scrubbed from the records. In one district where forest officials did submit their ‘comments’ at an SLDC meeting on February 10, the local revenue divisional officer (RDO) on February 15, declared that the ‘comments’ were submitted in a “hush-hush manner” and this was done without the knowledge of the SLDC chairman and other members of the district level committee. The RDO then declared that since the submissions were done in a hush-hush manner, they cannot be considered.

Incidentally, the submissions by the forest officials were dated February 9, which was one day before the SLDC meeting.

The land row

The principal chief conservator of forests (head of forest force) in a letter on December 7, 2021, says 7,29,654 acres of forest land were under encroachment as uploaded on the Mee Seva portal.

PCCF says that despite this, the “extent to which claims have been received and uploaded is exceptionally high.”

PCCF instructs officials to critically examine the claims using satellite imagery.

On February 28, the tribal welfare department writes to district collectors (Lr.RC.No.1505/TRI/ROFR/2021) to take ‘necessary action’ with respect to the use of satellite imagery.

The department cites the 2012 Central fiat that satellite imagery should be used to supplement evidence tendered by the claimant, and not to replace other evidence as the only form of evidence.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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