Return of village land

Supreme Court asks states to evict illegal occupants of village commons

By Ravleen Kaur
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Jagpal SinghJAGPAL SINGH and Dev Singh of Jagir Rohar village in Patiala have little idea that their enmity has resulted in a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court that would bear implications for the rural population of the country.

In its January 28 decision in the case concerning encroachment of common land by Jagpal Singh, the apex court directed all state governments to prepare schemes for the eviction of those occupying village commons and restore them to the community. It asked the states to submit compliance reports by May.

Activists have hailed the judgement. Common property resources, which constitute 15 per cent of the country’s total area, are shrinking at the rate of 1.9 per cent every five years due to encroachment, as per the National Sample Survey Organisation. Since Independence, more than 834,000 hectares of village commons have been encroached. Village commons include everything from pastures, forests and common threshing grounds to ponds, irrigation channels and rivers, and play an important role in rural economy (see ‘India’s commons’).

India’s commons
  Dependence of rural households

For firewood collection: 45% For fodder collection: 13% For grazing land: 20% Water for livestock: 30% Water for irrigation: 23%

Source: National Sample Survey Organisation
“We cannot allow the common interest of villagers to suffer merely because the unauthorised occupation has subsisted for many years,” the court said in its ruling, rejecting Singh’s claim over a little more than one hectare (ha) of the village common land.

It all began in 2003 when the gram sabha of Jagir Rohar approached the district collector against Jagpal Singh who was constructing a house on the common land that extends over 6.8 ha. The revenue records list the land as gair mumkin toba or village pond, though just a patch of it shows signs of a pond, covered with water hyacinth.

Residents said the waterhole acts as a sink for stormwater from the village and is used by cattle. People use the rest of the land for tending cattle and storing fodder. Gujjar families who visit the area in winters also camp there.

“The collector sided with Jagpal,” said Baldev Singh, a resident of the village. “So my relative Dev Singh and I took the matter to the deputy commissioner of Patiala. But Jagpal went ahead with the construction work and approached the high court against the commissioner’s order. The high court ruled in our favour,” he said. Following this, Jagpal filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the high court ruling.

“As many as 77 families live on the land but the case was filed only against me. Dev Singh and his relative influenced the panchayat to do so owing to a previous grudge,” Jagpal alleged. “I have been staying here since the time of my forefathers. If they committed a mistake, I am ready to pay for it. But it’s not easy to construct a house these days,” he said, appalled by the judgement.

Most people in the village have houses on the land, said Gurnam Singh, a resident. They first set up a cattle shed and eventually convert it into a pucca house. This usually happens when the population increases. So no one had ever objected to it, not even the panchayat, he added. Jasveer Singh, another resident, said, “The case started as a fight between two parties in the village. Poor people like us are now being dragged into it.”

The panchayat, now under a new sarpanch, Narendra Singh, who happens to be Jagpal Singh’s relative, recently appealed to the high court saying action should also be taken against others living in the panchayat land. It submitted a list of 77 people to the court that includes names of Dev Singh and Baldev Singh.

  Jaswant Singh  
  If court had not acted against Jagpal, others would also have built houses on the land. This would have led to drainage problem in the village and parched the pond  
  — Jaswant Singh, a resident of Jagir Rohar  
“The list just names people randomly,” clarified Jaswant, Dev Singh’s son. Some poor people do stay there but most have just fodder sheds. Jagpal Singh influenced the panchayat to do this to save his own skin, he alleged. The district development and panchayat officer of Patiala said his department is carrying out demarcation of the commonland in Jagir Rohar that has been encroached.

This is not a one-off case in Punjab, but the government hardly takes action against such encroachers, said forest rights activist Madhu Sarin. The scene has changed after the Green Revolution. People now do not seem to depend on the commons. They are encroaching land for cultivation. In some cases people have comfortably divided the gram sabha land among themselves, she said.

“Regularising such illegalities must not be permitted because it is gram sabha land which must be kept for the common use of villagers,” the Supreme Court noted in its ruling. “Our ancestors were not fools. They knew that in certain years there may be droughts or water shortages and water was also required for cattle to drink and bathe in etc. Hence they built a pond attached to every village, a tank to every temple.

These were their traditional rain water harvesting methods which served them for thousands of years,” the ruling noted. Regularisation, however, should be permitted in exceptional cases, for example, where lease has been granted under some government notification to landless labourers or members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, or where there is already a school, dispensary or other public utility, the court said.

A precedent

“The judgement came as a pleasant surprise,” said Jagdeesh Rao of the Foundation for Ecological Securities, a nonprofit in Gujarat. “It would not be easy to take the commons back from encroachers. However, the ruling gives some basis on which people can fight for their rights,” he said.

About 200 ha of grazing land in Mundra in Gujarat on which Maldharis and other native villagers used to depend has gone into the special economic zone. We hope the order will help us get the land back,” said Bharat Patel of Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti, a non-profit that opposes industrialisation in Kachchh. As per an estimate, livestock in the state face a deficit of 2.5 million ha of grazing land.

The judgement has ignited hope among residents of Kalpavalli village in Ananthpur district of Andhra Pradesh as well. A wind firm is eyeing 2,832 ha of wasteland which people have revived over 17 years. “Every day 40,000 sheep cross the area. But it is designated as revenue wasteland,” said Mary Vattamattam of Timbaktu Collective, a nonprofit that helped regenerate vegetation on the wasteland. She hopes the judgement would help Kalpavalli community get ownership over the revived land.

“It is a laudable order,” said Supreme Court advocate Rajiv Dhavan. It asks the government to restore the common land and evict people who are illegally occupying it but still preserves orders that have allotted land for public institutions like schools. Its implementation seems difficult, though.

On the one hand, it is an exhortation to restore common land and on the other, an invitation to litigations from those who would lose encroached land, Dhavan said. He was referring to part of the order that says all government orders allotting gram sabha land to individuals or commercial enterprises on payment are illegal and should be ignored. The order implicitly says the government has no power over the commons, he added.

One fear is this judgement might be used against the poor rather than getting hold of the big fish, said Viren Lobo of the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, a non-profit in Delhi. For instance, the government removed slums to save the Yamuna bed but constructed the Commonwealth Games village at the same site, he said.

“The judgement says very little about acquisition of the commons by the State,” said Sarin. For instance, in places like Delhi and Chandigarh, the governments took over villages for urban development. Punjab and Haryana governments are now following suit. How can such government orders be ignored after they have been implemented?

The judgement would still be handy for fighting cases like Jaitapur nuclear power project where the government is acquiring common grazing land, said Sarin, adding, “Then it will be law versus the government.”


Common Concerns
How to approach environmentalism
Injustice gets nastier
Caution: pastures ahead
Industry casts covetous eye on village commons

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  • This is very interesting.

    This is very interesting. Here in England we lost thousands of acres of common land during the inclosure movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so way back in our memory is that experience of theft of the commons. More recently, we have just helped to reverse a government decision to sell off our publicly-owned forest estate which is an important victory for us. Kate Ashbrook General Secretary The Open Spaces Society (Britain's oldest national conservation body)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Spot on..what has been

    Spot on..what has been articulated in this article is true of most villages in U.P including my own.

    A brilliant judgment. Now it's time for execution!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The issue of commons is

    The issue of commons is fraught with complexity. The categorisation of land as 'wasteland' by the Government 'licences' it to be used for unsustainable uses such as biodiesel plantations which place communities into debt-traps or SEZs. For a 'true' commons based land use policy it is imperative that the State (i) eliminate this categorisation of land as 'wasteland' and instead provide active support to re-vegetate and revive these common lands for pastoralism (ii) take a cue from this landmark Supreme Court judgement and seriously develop legal provisions that will enable community-based governance of commons.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Encroachment of common land

    Encroachment of common land have become a common practices in all the villages. I have seen such problem in many villages, but no body wants to object bcz everybody have got a share of that. The increase in land price in villages have triggered the problem. Agroha, a village of Hisar distt of Haryana has been recently declared as "Aadrsh village" (Ideal village) but it had lost most of its common land throgh encroachment. I doubt that there will be any major complaints against such encroachment bcz the encroachment is generally done by influencial and rich people and most of them are a part of such encroachments.
    Lets see how government execute on this brilliant judgement!!!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Very fine Judgment, purely in

    Very fine Judgment, purely in national interest !! Where can i find a copy of this Judgment.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The judgement is welcome but

    The judgement is welcome but should not be used by the state to evict the poor from the commons. Instead the Honble Judges should ask the State Governments to file a report on the extent of Common land which has been apropriated by the state agencies (Sipcot-Tamilnadu}and hand it over back to the community/Village panchayat . Its only then that the judgement becomes truly revolutionary.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks Mr.Devendra the

    Thanks Mr.Devendra

    the judgement is available on India Environment Portal

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The major culprit for common

    The major culprit for common lands being lost is Land Reforms and Village panchayat enactments of most states in 1954 for this is what opened access to the commons of all those who had every incentive to privatise and individualise the commons. This is what began to weaken the panchayats and opened them for manipulation by district officials.
    Can the Supreme court reverse the impact of what the Government of Delhi is doing in the villages of Delhi?
    Most important judgement for a precednece but can the Supreme Court reverse the filling up of village ponds in villages like Kanjhawala which lost its common lands to the policy of the Government of Delhi Administration which distributed 123 acres of common lands to the landless harijans way back in 1977?
    These 123 acres were sold off to the Government by the very poor people to whom it was given.
    The CWG led to the urban poor being shifted to slum like dwellings built on the commons of villages like Sowda. Can this court decision reverse this destruction? In the neighbouring village of Gheora - the Indian Oil Company has built its oil stocking facilities on the commons and then park their massive tankers alongside the road and therefore taking over another commons - the roads which link these villages to the outside world. One has only to go to this site to know how massive traffic jams are caused by such encroachments of the commons.
    The governments of various states themselves have enabled the take over of common lands in the name of development and have also allowed big corporations to privatise large rivers which are the only source of drinking water for whole cities.
    The Supreme Court has to support local communities effort to self-govern their lives. It is centralised governance which is at the bottom of such massive tragedies of the commons not the local communities. But who is listening?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Under the umbrella of welfare

    Under the umbrella of welfare government it is expected that the policies fulfills actual welfare and let the benefit reach to the bottom liners . Difficult,it may seem and it is , but a journey of mile begins with a step  as we know that almost 83% of the farmers in rural India are categorized as 'small and Marginal' who possesses small tracts of land and produce mostly for self subsistence . To substitute their income they also rear cattle . But with the decreasing grazing lands owing to encroachments and accusations by private builders and government schemes , agricultural production is going down and the livestock health is also deteriorating . The part of land is now replaced by fodders which could have otherwise been put to food crops , Livestock are surviving on crop remnants rather then green and nutritious grass causing reduction in livestock derived products . So this step by Supreme court is definitely a good attempt to wards bringing livelihood security to the marginalized if strictly monitored and properly guided.

    I am trying to look at the relationship between loss of Grazing land and the agricultural production . I would be highly thankful if any of you could suggest me a good article or book in this regard .

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The misuse of public

    The misuse of public properties (here it referred only to land in rural areas) starts with those who are powerful. To continue occupying Govt. House after retirement is one such issue. Misuse of Govt. vehicles, resources, peons & drivers is common. Misuse of power endorsed by holding a particular position is considered to be a matter of pride.
    A very good decision by judiciary system.
    Similar situation prevails in urban areas for public (& private) properties. The delay in giving ruling helps mafias (small or organized) to become more powerful.
    Hope some fast action in such cases will be taken by all courts.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply