Dispute over status of forestland in MP, Chhattisgarh

Published: Monday 15 October 2007

the Supreme Court on August 24, 2007, ordered Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh governments to respond to a petition to clarify the status of at least 1.2 million hectares (ha). Called Orange area because it was marked in that colour on the map, both the revenue and forest departments of the states claim it. The confusion was never cleared through land survey and settlement, leaving several grey--or in this case orange--areas. This directly affects over one million adivasi families, that are labelled 'encroachers'. Since the 70s, both departments have been issuing different directions for the 1.2 million ha.

The matter was brought to Delhi by Ekta Parishad, a network of social groups working on land rights in central India. In 2003, it approached the Central Empowered Committee (cec), which advises the Supreme Court in the omnibus forest case going on since 1996, to solve the issue. The cec ordered the states to file responses in 2004. But the states did not respond. The inaction forced Ekta Parishad to approach the apex court directly.

In 1958, control of over 9 million ha of forestland (earlier under princely states) was handed over to the forest department by a blanket notification but the revenue department did not update the records. In 1965, 4.5 million ha were brought under a special category 'deemed protected forests' in section 34 (a) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The forest department handed over the other 5.6 million ha back to the revenue department because they did not fit the category of "forests", but without any legal mechanism. The apex court in a 1996 judgment turned the land to forestland. Faced with food shortage in the 1960s, the revenue department had issued pattas (deeds) to grow food on many of these areas. "Rights remain suspended for the 'deemed protected forests' also because the process of their notification has not been followed," says Anil Garg, a Betul-based lawyer who has worked extensively on the issue.

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