Forest department shocker to Mumbai suburban residents: pay more to regularise homes on forestland

Residents question hike when Supreme Court is yet to decide dispute over status of their land 

 
By Ashiwin Aghor
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Over half a million residents living in the eastern and western suburbs of Mumbai have been asked to shell out extra money for regularisation of their homes on land classified as private forestland. The forest department had earlier asked them to pay at the rate of Rs 6 per sq foot (0.30 metre). But now they have been asked to pay more after the forest department increased the net present value (NPV) of the forestland. Its NPV was increased because of reclassification of the land from barren to dense forest.

The course of the dispute 

  • The forest department issued notices to land owners in 1957 all over the state asking them to prove their land is not forestland. The claim to have issued notices to the owners of about 257,000 hectares
  • Areas in Mumbai where notices were served include Thane, Mulund, Bhandup, Nahur, Mahul, Borivali, Kandivali, Virar, Badlapur, Ambarnath
  • The notices were given under the Maharashtra Private Forests Acquisition Act which deals with transfer of forest groves greater than 12 ha from individuals and communities to the forest department. The Act declares community-held forests as illegal holdings
  • But after issuing the notices, the forest department never held any hearings within the fixed period of six months. The revenue department, too, did not update its land records, accordingly. Commercial transactions and construction work was allowed in these areas with government permission
  • Development plans of these areas prepared in 1967 and in 1991 deem these areas as residential. The revenue department, in 2006, passed an order turning the land into forestland. Subsequently the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation issued stop-work notices to builders in this areas
  • The builders moved the Bombay High Court for a stay. The court allowed builders to continue with construction, subject to the final decision by the Supreme Court and restrained them from creating third party rights
  • The Bombay High Court in its final hearing on March 24, 2008, dismissed the residents’ and builders’ petitions. The decision ratified the revenue department and the BMC stand that the land under consideration is forest land. Residents and builders challenged this decision in the Supreme Court
  • The state government, in 2008, said it would work out a formula to regularise the flats. The same year, the apex court asked the Central Empowered Committee to sort out the matter.
  • In July 2009, CEC recommended payment of net present value of the forestland by residents to get their houses regularised. The afforestation fees ranged from Rs 6 to Rs 12 per sq foot, depending on when the flats were built. The state government collected Rs 100 cr NPV from residents. However, the state did not pass this information to MoEF
  • A two member bench of Justice Aftab Alam and Justice R M Lodha, in February 2010 decided to refer the case to a three member Supreme Court bench. No further hearings have been held
 
The residents of the buildings got a shock when they received notices  about four months ago from the state's revenue and forest department, informing them of the increased NPV. The affected people include residents of middle class homes in Mulund, Nahur, Borivali, Goregaon and Mahul in Mumbai and Ghodbunder Road in nearby Thane.

Land reclassification increased net value

About one-and-half years ago, residents of several housing societies paid NPV as per the demand note issued by forest department at the rate of Rs 6 per sq foot for residential and Rs 12 per sq foot for commercial properties. After the new classification of the land, minimum NPV has been increased to Rs 9 per sq foot. When the state government submitted the proposal for regularisation of the buildings to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the state's forest officials were taken to task for classifying the land as barren. This was because the adjoining Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is densely forested.

Praveensingh Pardeshi, principal secretary for revenue and forest, says “the earlier calculation was on the basis of wrong classification of the land as barren. The land in fact is dense forest and hence NPV has been increased.” Earlier, NPV was calculated at the rate of Rs 7.3 lakh per hectare. After reclassification, NPV will be levied at the rate of Rs 9.39 lakh per hectare, he adds. Sources in the forest department say the government did not charge the cost of land while calculating NPV. The penalty for regularising the buildings, considering the cost of land in Mumbai, should be much higher, they say.

The state government, has, meanwhile, also initiated action against the then conservator of forests of Thane circle, A R Salunkhe, for wrongly classifying the land as barren.

The residents are protesting. Prakash Paddikal, president of the Hillside Residents’ Welfare Association (HIRWA), fighting for the rights of the residents on private forestland says the hike is unjustified. “We paid NPV as per the directives of the committee appointed by the Supreme Court. The government collected over Rs 100 crore one-and-half years back. Such unilateral decision to increase the NPV cannot be taken, especially when the matter is in court and the three-judge bench has not given the final verdict on the status of our land.”

Forestland or urban land?

The genesis of the problem are the notices issued by the forest department in 1957 (with a validity of six months). It asked residents of various regions in the state to prove their property is not on forestland. But the matter ended there. No heed was was paid to the notice for decades by either the residents or the state government. The revenue department and the corporations deemed these areas as residential, commercial and industrial zones. Hospitals, industries, schools and rehabilitation centres for refugees and residential complexes were subsequently built in these areas with government permission. The municipal corporation has been collecting property tax from these areas.

The turning point was a 2001 public interest petition filed by non-profit, Bombay Environmental Action Group, demanding demarcation of the total forestland in Maharashtra. The high court asked the government to demarcate such land and submit the documents to the court within a given time frame. The revenue and forest department suddenly started correcting the revenue records without giving any intimation to land-owners. They entered the name of forest department in the column under the heading "Other rights” of the 7/12 extract of the land record (7/12 extract is a document issued by the office of tehsildar pertaining to land ownership and use). When residents came to know about this, HIRWA challenged the move in the Bombay High Court, in 2006. In 2008, the high court upheld the decision of the state and declared these areas as forestland.

The high court order was challenged in the Supreme Court the same year. The apex court then asked the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into the matter. In June 2010, CEC recommended that the flats be regularised on payment of a nominal afforestation fee ranging from Rs 6 to Rs 12 per sq ft, depending on date of construction of a flat, its present status and site location. The Supreme Court is yet to give its final verdict in the case.

The two-member bench of Aftab Alam and Justice R M Lodha, in February last year, decided to refer the case to a three-member Supreme Court bench because a similar case had been decided by a two judge bench. Eleven months on, the larger bench to decide the case is yet to be constituted. Many residents accuse the state government of lethargy, saying it is not pushing for as early decision by the apex court.

“The state government has so far collected Rs 100 cr NPV as regularisation charges from residents and builders. However, there has been neither correspondence with MoEF about this nor any request to the Supreme Court to expedite the matter. Citizen groups have now threatened to take to the streets and launch protests seeking justice,” Padikkal says.

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