Vijay Pinjarkar,TNN
NAGPUR: At a time when the Forest Department is under pressure to divert forested land for development projects despite the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980, the state government has, in the last eight years, lost more forest to agricultural encroachments under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.

The Forest Department is often criticised for not diverting land easily, but the government has distributed over 2.40 lakh (1 lakh = 100 000) acres of land up to December 2014 to agricultural encroachments, which is more than the forest land diverted for developmental projects in the last eight years. In comparison, under the FCA 1980, around 1.23 lakh hectares of forested land have been diverted for development projects in the last 34 years. During the same period, forest land diverted for infrastructure projects is over 8,000 hectares.

The well-being of humanity, the environment, and the functioning of the economy, ultimately depend upon the responsible management of the planet's natural resources. Evidence is building that people are consuming far more natural resources than what the planet can sustainably provide. The World Environment Day (WED) theme this year is therefore 'Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care'.

Conservationists expect the BJP-Shiv Sena government to take legal action against encroachers, remove these encroachments and run afforestation programmes to restore forest.

As per statistics, claims of at least 2,573 individuals have been rejected under the FRA by the district-level committees under the chairmanship of district collectors but thousands of acres of forest land is still with encroachers. Not a single individual whose claims were rejected on the ground that the forest land was encroached after December 13, 2005, has been arrested under FRA 2006.

Interestingly, claims that the forest land under FRA is being distributed to tribals is not completely true. The 2.40 lakh acre land given so far goes to 90,522 tribals (2.13 lakh acre) and 15,766 non-tribals (38,653 acre).

The flaws in the rules framed for the implementation of FRA is leading to more encroachments on forest lands in Maharashtra.
It has been observed that people first register the claims before gram sabha (a type of council) and then start girdling trees, setting fire, ploughing the forest land to make forest department unable to take any action by showing that their claim is pending. The FRA states that no encroachment should be evicted till pendency of claim. This loophole is well applied by encroachers.

Climate change activist Nishikant Kale said that as FRA 2006 implementation process is not open ended, the state government should put a full stop to distributing forest lands to individuals.

FRA does not permit villagers to encroach the forest land after December 13, 2005. Kale said "The encroachments by individuals prior to December 13, 2005 have been already rejected through a three-tier state committee and yet there are several reports of fresh encroachments. This needs to be stopped immediately by taking stringent action on encroachers under the same act FRA 2006,"

Necessary steps:

* Ask the Forest Department to report encroachments after December 13, 2005 from in and outside PAs along with an 'action taken' report.

* Ask tribal department to ensure that implementation of FRA 2006 does not violate the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 as MoTA has not implemented Section 2(b) of FRA (declaration of critical wildlife habitat) before distributing individual and community rights

* Ensure that encroachments under FRA do not affect wildlife corridors connecting PAs

* Ask tribal department to initiate action against gram sabhas continuously sending claim proposals after the deadline

* Ask tribal department to instruct Forest Department to remove fresh encroachments where claims have been finally rejected by district committees

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