THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The law sanctions summary eviction of encroachers, but the Forest Department is using both subtle and crass tactics to scuttle the recovery of encroached forest land. Though the comprehensive list of forest encroachers post 1977 was drawn up more than a quarter century ago, the department has been able to wrest back just 113 hectares or 1.5 per cent of the 7,801 hectares of encroached forest land. The department’s strategy, which on the face of it seems fair and proactive, is to issue notices to encroachers.
The obvious advantage is, the encroachers will get enough time to seek a court stay. However, for encroachers who are reluctant to go to court, which is the case of majority encroachers in the state, the department has thrown a legal smokescreen around them as protection. It has moved the court with a baffling plea: it wants clarity on how to issue notices. The list of forest land encroachers post 1977 was drawn up as part of a joint verification conducted by the revenue and forest departments in 1992; the list had the names of over one lakh families, half of them in Idukki. (Encroachments before January 1, 1977, were regularised.) The High Court had in September 2015 directed that eviction proceedings be completed within a year.
“Each forest division has a separate list of encr-oachers, and the lists were handed over to the district collectors, too,” said lawyer and nature activist Harish Vasudevan. The Forest Department’s move to serve notice to the encroacher is baffling given that Kerala Forest Act, 1961, allows summary eviction of encroachers. The HC in the Kerala Government vs Mathai Kuriakose case in 1988 had also found nothing illegal in summary eviction. Further, it has also been established that encroachers have no rights. Field level officials of the Forest Department consider swift eviction the most effective way to recover encroached land.
“In Nelliampathy, for instance, the only lands that have stayed with the Department are the ones that were summarily evicted. Wherever notices were issued, the encroachers had gone to court and secured a stay,” an official said. “Encroachers take legal recourse in summary eviction cases, too, but the courts invariably give a status quo order, which is to keep the land as forest. If at all they secure a favourable verdict at a later date, the land would have grown back into a forest by then,” the official said.
Strangely, even after notices were issued no action has been taken. Many of these notices have been issued months ago, some through the district collector and others directly by the Forest Department, but none had elicited a response. “This should have actually allowed the department to go ahead with eviction,” Mr Vasudevan said.
But forest officials say they cannot as the issue was currently sub-judice. The state government has filed a petition in the HC seeking “more clarity on issuing notices”. In short, encroachers are given two layers of protection. First, the department issues notices unnecessarily to postpone eviction. And now when the time to respond to the notice has long lapsed, the state has gone to Court on the inane pretext of seeking clarity on issuing notices....