HP forest land encroachment row: Questionable behavior of Govt. and HC
SHIMLA- On April 6, 2015, Himachal Pradesh High Court passed interim orders to uproot apple trees cultivated on encroached forest land in order to recover the land. The court also directed to disconnect water and electricity connection to encroachers along with demolition of illegal structures on forest land. It’s a wonderful decision to order recovery of encroached land within six months. After all, no one should be allowed to encroach forest land.
Following the directions, the forest department begins to axe trees on encroached land. The department started with small orchards less than five bigha. Green apple trees, laden with this season’s harvest were fell down under government’s watch. However, the government did not interfere until unrest rose among apple growers, agrarian society, environmentalists and CPI(M), which was the only political party that came in support of small-scale, poor apple growers. Many growers have been growing apples on these lands for over three decade. The government and the people, both were responsible for promotion of encroachment culture. However, at the end, when the payback time arrived, only cultivators faced the losses.
This decision also affected the price of apple crops in the market. Panicked growers started to pluck unripe apples. It resulted in untimely flood of apple in market, reducing the cost of even higher grade apples. So, other growers also faced the consequences due to the decision taken without deep knowledge of Himachal’s apple grower community.
On 26 July, HP government filed a review petition seeking amendments in the interim orders passed by the HC. On 27 July, the HC ordered a stay on cutting of apple trees, but declined the plea to amend interim orders passed earlier.
The new orders directed the chief secretary and the principal secretary to take responsibility of plucking the apples, conduct their sale and use the money for plantation of vegetation that belongs to forest.
A division bench consisting of Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan, in its eight page order said,
It appears that the state has not sought modification of the orders but has shown its bona fides to protect the apple trees, the fruits and the crop, which is/are standing on the encroached forest land and to protect the environment as cutting of a large number of trees, may cause deforestation. Before we pass any direction, we deem it proper to record herein that it appears that the officials of the state have remained in deep slumber for a pretty long time. For the coming seasons, if any crop grows on its own, i.e. by natural process, that be destroyed.
While it’s surprising that the Himachal HC failed to consider all relevant aspects and perspectives earlier, the HP government waited for destruction of apple crop of smaller cultivators. There are a few questions that need to be answered to justify such negligent and tricky behavior of the government.
If the justification includes anything about public unrest or ecological damage, then it’s really ridiculous to know that Virbhadra Singh, who is leading the government sixth time since formation of the state, and who is himself an agriculturist, failed to foresee it.
First of all, there is no doubt that government itself encouraged encroachment for decades and later failed to find appropriate solution when scolded by the HC.
Secondly, after orders passed by HC on April 6, why it took nearly four months for the HP government to file a petition when it was well aware of the negative consequences of this decision on apple industry and ecology of the state?
Third, as alleged by apple growers as well CPI (M), why the government begin with encroached lands smaller than 5-bigha when it should have targeted the big fish first.
The high court has ordered fencing of marked land and allowed the government to harvest and sell this year’s apple crop. It also asked the government to ensure that no further cultivation is allowed on encroached land.
As a matter of fact, an apple tree can deliver good harvest for decades. However, the HC has allowed the government to harvest and sell only this year’s crop. Does it means that trees will be axed after harvesting the crop?
So, what difference it would make if trees are spared for one year. Moreover, the plantation campaigns have always met miserable failures because it takes many decades for cedar or deodar plants to only survive. New plantation will not fulfill the gap created by thousand of axed apple trees.
May be, forest vegetation can be planted alongside apple trees. Let apple trees live their full life span without maintenance. Once, the trees are dead, ensure check on further plantation of any crop on forest land.