HC stays land deals in Gir periphery
Times of India By Himanshu Kaushik
Issue involves possession of land by non-Maldharis
The Gujarat high court has stayed land deals in the periphery of the lions' den – the Gir sanctuary – as the issue of possession of land by non-Maldharis in the surrounding forest reserve is to be resolved before the division bench.
Earlier, a single-judge bench held that the land was allotted to Maldharis towards rehabilitation purpose. But since the land was sold to other people, it frustrates the purpose of conservation of forest and hence should be taken back by the forest department as per the Indian Forest and Wildlife Protection Act.
After declaring Gir forest as sanctuary, the government in 1977 began shifting 845 Maldharis from the forest to the outskirts and allotted plots for their rehabilitation. Some 588 families were given land in the periphery of the sanctuary. However, revenue department later allowed them to sell the land to non-Maldharis and 292 plots were sold out.
The forest department said, those Maldharis who sold their land actually went back to the forest. Hence the purpose for allotting the land was defeated. As per the state government's declaration of the area as reserve forest, nobody except Maldharis should be allowed to stay or carry out non-forest activity on this land, which largely falls under the Mendarda block of Junagadh.
When the forest officials restricted one Anil Chudasama from construction on a land purchased in this area, he approached the authorities and later the high court. While the forest department insisted that such people who have purchased land from the Maldharis should be evicted, the revenue department had another take on it.
Last year, justice MR Shah appointed advocate Amit Panchal as amicus curie, who submitted a report that such land needs to be taken back. Accordingly, justice Shah held that Chudasama had no right to carry out construction or agriculture activity on the plot, though he was the third purchaser of the plot after the Maldhari sold it long ago.
The HC accepted that the land falls under reserved forest category. Moreover, justice Shah also directed the chief conservator of forest to inquire into the cases of 292 plots and decide as per the provisions of the forest act, which means that the land holding would be declared as illegal.
This had also an indication that the decision to allot land to the tribals in 1977 could be declared null and void. When this decision was challenged by Chudasama before a division bench, it ordered to maintain status quo on the land and clarified that the plot would not be sold without prior permission of the court.
Don't become prey to lions: CJ
While ordering a stay on land deals in the reserved forest surrounding the Gir sanctuary, chief justice SJ Mukhopadhaya called for maintaining a balance between development and nature. The forest department has been maintaining that the increased grazing has resulted in decrease of prey for lions in the forest. Moreover, the forest officials have also been insisting that the sale of plots allotted to Maldharis be declared illegal, and non-Maldharis be evicted from the place. However, the petitioner claims that he has been deliberately harassed by forest officials due to other social consideration and his ownership of the plot is legal. To this, the chief justice commented, "Lions' place has to be protected. You shift from the place before you become prey to lions.
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