High Court gives Centre four weeks to decide forestland allocation to Essar

Directs demolition of company buildings on forestland near Hazira in case Centre denies approval

 
By Anupam Chakravartty
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The Gujarat High Court has given the Central government four weeks to decide on the allocation of forestland illegally encroached by Essar Steel Limited (ESL) at Hazira, Gujarat.

In a ruling delivered on Friday, state high court justices Bhaskar Bhattacharjee and J B Pardiwala also directed the state government to present express its views on the matter within two weeks.

The order was given on a petition filed by former Congress MLA Farooq Shaikh, which sought legal intervention after it was found that the company had illegally encroached on 20 hectares (ha) of forestland and erected three buildings. ESL has however denied the allegations, but at the same time has requested Gujarat government to regularise the three structures at Choryasi village near Hazira in Surat district.

The court ordered that if the Central government denies approval, the buildings, which house over 800 ESL employees will be demolished within two weeks, and that the land would be handed over to the state.

In January this year, the Gujarat High Court sought an explanation from the state government and the Centre over allocation of forestland to ESL at Hazira. Shaikh had filed a public interest petition, challenging the allocation of forestland.

Shaikh's  counsel, Y N Oza, vehemently argued that ESL got the forestland at throwaway prices. Estimated at Rs 250 crore, the land sold was not only a loss to the state exchequer but also a loss to the environment. According to ESL’s submissions before the court, a local farmer's cooperative sold the land at Hazira at Rs 8 lakh per acre (one acre equals 0.4 ha) in 2009, which amounts to Rs 13.48 crore. The farmer's cooperative had been allocated the same land by the state government in 1959 to make the barren land fertile. Sensing illegalities in the sale, the then district collector of Surat, A J Shah, ordered the local tehsildar to file police complaints against 300 odd members of the cooperative for selling government land without prior permission on August 2, 2011.

Illegalities found

Though the Gujarat government relied on the Centre to decide on the fate of the land, it declared the occupation of land illegal. Much before the procedure of sale of the land in 2011 came to light, the Gujarat government had already discovered in 2007 that ESL had illegally acquired the land. Subsequently, offences were registered under the Indian Forest Act against the company and its officials. A survey was ordered involving local revenue department officials who, according to Shaikh and Oza, were bribed by Essar to prepare a 'fake' report on the status of the land. The Surat district administration again ordered an enquiry and a survey, in which it was found the company had made illegal encroachments. Around the same time, three residential buildings were constructed by ESL, which till date house 628 families.

The state government suspended four revenue department officials for colluding with ESL during the first survey. It subsequently ordered a ban on any further construction until the matter is decided.

Fearing it will lose the land, ESL allegedly made a 'fait accompli', and proposed that the Gujarat forest department provide them with an additional 110 ha of non-forest land at Sanada village in Bhavnagar district. This land was earmarked for the “lion corridor” as it was suitable habitat for lions of the state. The proposal was sent to the office of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in Bhopal in 2011. However, the Gujarat government suggested a penalty of 2.5 times the prevailing market value of the land be used as part of the corporate social responsibility initiatives of the company. 

In its reply to Shaikh’s petition earlier this year, ESL claimed to have purchased 110 ha of land. However, the forest conservator of Bhavnagar says ESL was allowed to buy 42 ha, which according to a letter by the state conservator of forests, is suitable habitat for the lion. The state government instead recommended the proposal to the MoEF, which is yet to take a decision on the issue in 2011.
 

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