Himachal Pradesh High Court on Thursday directed the state government to remove all forest encroachment by March 30 without cutting any tree. A division bench comprising Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary and Justice CB Barowalia, in a bid to protect the ecology of the area, directed state authorities to take effective steps to protect the pristine forests in order to enhance the forest cover.
It has further directed the Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigating the case to file a status report before the court. The court has further directed the secretary (forest) to file an affidavit explaining therein the status of encroachments in other parts of the state.
Earlier in April this year, the court had taken up a petition suo motu based on a letter written to then acting Chief Justice Sanjay Karol by a resident of Chaithala village in Kotkhai, Shimla.
It was alleged in the letter that around 40 residents of Chaithala, Nagpuri Chaithala, Karewag Chaithala and Sevag Chaitala in Shimla had raised apple orchards on around 500 bighas of government land. They had allegedly felled Deodar trees to raise the orchards. Some of them had even availed financial help from the government for setting up apple grading and packing houses and water storage tanks, according to the letter. The petitioner also alleged that the government had also provided the electricity and water connections to the encroachers.
The HC had then formed an SIT comprising Debasweta Banik (IAS), Soumya Sambasivan (IPS), and Chief Conservator of Forest Alok Nagar to evict 13 people who had encroached approximately 280 bighas of forest land, and to file a compliance report by May 9, 2018.
The SIT headed by Debshweta Banik, Additional DC (Shimla), on May 9, had submitted its report in the High Court, informing that forest encroachments in eight cases, out of total 13 had been removed by felling apple plants.
While the High Court had granted three week’s time in one case to clarify the facts, the rest were ordered to be taken up immediately to clear the encroachments by May 17. The SIT report from the area said that they had made a substantial headway in the drive to clear illegal forest encroachments involving hundreds of apple plants, which were flattened by the joint teams of the forest and revenue department in Rohru sub-division of Shimla to enforce High Court orders.
The orchard owners whose fruit-bearing plants were axed, included 13 of those which High Court had identified as ‘big’ apple producers, who had allegedly encroached 50 to 200 bighas of the forests, and had made riches out of the apple economy during past four decades.
Taking a serious note of these forest encroachments, the court on July 21 had observed, “It is highly regrettable that despite repeated orders and severe indictment by this court, the state authorities have not cared to implement the same. This court can only pass orders and it is for the authorities to obey or assail the same before the higher court. If the orders are not assailed, then the authorities have no option but to obey such orders, both in letter and spirit.”
It then enlisted the Eco-Task Force set up by the Indian Army based at Kufri (Shimla) for removing encroachments over forests or public land in the Jalatha, Chaithla, Pungrish, Pandali and Kalemu villages in Kotkhai tehsil in Shimla district.
Many environmentalists had termed this order “childish”, as they felt that fruit-bearing trees should not be cut. According to them, the trees could have been protected and encroachments could have been fenced and handed over to the forest department. They believed that cutting down trees is unscientific and anti-environment. The Himachal Kisan Sabha (HKS) had also expressed displeasure over this decision and had asked the government to find an alternate way to protect the apple trees.
Against this backdrop, the crucial judgement which came on Thursday seems to have pleased many people who had earlier expressed their anguish over cutting of the fruit-bearing trees. Sanjay Chauhan, member of the Himachal Kisan Sabha and former Mayor of Shimla told Newsclick, “This judgement is in our favour, and we welcome it. We were demanding that the encroachment up to five bighas should be given to poor farmers, and larger encroachments should be fenced and handed over to the forest department. The government should implement viable policies and we are glad that the Honourable High Court has upheld our stance.”
Read more: Is Asking the Army to Cut Down Apple Trees the Only Way to Remove Encroachments?