Thursday, July 10 1997

Gujarat govt flouts Forest Act, SC fiat

D V Maheshwari

BHUJ, July 9: The State Government issued a resolution last month transferring possession of the 3,04,000 hectare Banni grasslands from the Revenue department to the Forest department 42 years after it was first notified.

But there is a hitch: part of the resolution runs contrary to the Forest Conservation Act (1980) and a Supreme Court order preventing any ``non-forest activity'' without the Central Government's permission.

The June 18 resolution bans any non-forest activity in the Banni and orders the removal of encroachments. But Clause 3 of the resolution allows contractors to cut Ganda Bawal for manufacturing charcoal - clearly a non- forest activity. The clause also permits the removal of charcoal stocks kept by manufacturers in the Chhachhla village within a month.

The Revenue and Forest department officials said,``We are now in a fix. We are not in a position to implement the resolution in total. Doing so will amount to contempt of the highest court of the country.''

The Banni, a grassland peculiar to the Rann of Kutch, has some 40 Maldhari hamlets. It was first declared a ``protected forest'' in May 1955, using the nomenclature of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Since then, the actual transfer of the land from the Revenue department to the Forest department had not taken place.

It was under the Banni Development Plan that contracts to cut down Ganda and manufacture charcoal were given. Section 32 of the Indian Forest Act 1927 did empower the State authorities to regulate licences for cutting of trees by private parties, but the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 restricted this right. Removal of trees from even privately-owned plots in ``protected forest'' land requires the Central Government's approval.

The 1980 Act, which updates the 1927 one, recognises ``protected forest'' as forest land on which non-forest activities are to be strictly prevented''. According to the 1996 Supreme Court judgment, any such activity as farming, mining, manufacture of charcoal, can be carried out only after government clearance. The essence of the judgement was that the term ``forest'' included forest by dictionary definition and by notification under the Forest Conservation Act.But last year, the Animal Husbandry department had allotted 10 tracts of 100 acres each to the Chhachhla Gram Panchayat for growing grass. Contracts were also awarded to charcoal manufacturers for cutting the Gando growing on these tracts. Some conservationists believe there is a scam involved since the contracts should never have been allowed once the Banni was classified as ``forest land''.

Two questions arise:Why is Chhachhla alone being allowed to clear the charcoal stocks. Where did more than 100 truckloads of charcoal in the village come from. Such a huge quantity of charcoal could not have come from the ten tracts alone.

Some see it as politically motivated. Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Bhuj, Mukesh Zaveri said, ``The resolution, appearing prima facie politically motivated, will cause immense hardship to the illiterate and innocent people of Banni. Some of them have already started moving out, fearing the Forest department. I am going to tour all the 40 hamlets in Banni to assess the situation.''

Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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