Pervasive, clarity vital

Land, Forest Encroachment

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The encroachment of land and forests in the country is not just physical and bluntly visible but matched by statistics. Millions of hectares of forests, grassland and game sanctuaries are encroached upon by either the local population or due to excessive tourism and commerce. The latter goes in the name of development, but without much concern about repercussions, including land subsidence wherein recent developments in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, are a testimony.

Forests are cleared regularly for industrial parks, mining commercial plantations and grazing tree cover of around 10 million hectares are destroyed each year. The damage inflicted is so pervasive and complete that, in many cases, it is irreversible and may take many decades to repair. Besides small-scale efforts of some groups, there is no institutional policy or active manpower push to contain the destruction and reverse it.

Following an investigation carried out by national daily The Indian Express, the country’s population has nearly doubled since 1981, its livestock numbers have increased by over a quarter and at least 25,000 sq km of forest land have either been diverted or encroached. Interestingly, it found that while Lutyens’ Delhi, India’s Capital, is known as the seat of power and home to men and women who run the country, but “what’s not so well known is that the bungalows of ministers and senior officers, even the RBI building on Sansad Marg, are ‘forest’ in the official forest cover map. Parts of the campuses of IIT and AIIMS, and residential neighbourhoods across Delhi are also forest”.

Further, for over four decades, around one-fifth of India has remained consistently under green cover on government records. Successive governments have not made public the granular data of the country’s forest cover.

In August last year, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav stated nearly 7,400 sq km of India’s forest land has been encroached. In reply to a question in Parliament, he revealed that half of the total encroached forest land was in the state of Assam alone. Nearly 377,500 odd hectares of the State’s forest land has so far been encroached. i.e. around 13% of its forest area. While the BJP government has taken it seriously and led an anti-encroachment drive to evict “encroachers” from nearly 1,900 hectares of forest and revenue land in areas, the exercise has got mired in controversy with groups saying that a certain community was being targeted.

The Ministry wrote to State governments/UT administrations to remove encroachment as per existing Acts/Rules and to ensure that no further encroachment takes place. In all, 740,973 hectares of forest land has been encroached upon in 37 States. The north-eastern States alone make up 60% of the total (with 460,000 hectares being encroached upon). Another data found that Uttarakhand lost 70% forest land which comes to around 50,000 hectares of its forests for various so-called developmental activities in past two decades. And the result of such activity to mining and road construction has been manifest, with huge land subsidence, destruction of habitats and displacement of people.

Coming to highways and roads that are constructed and expanded, this may seem like a major advance, but these benefit the upper echelons of society while the poor, whose lands are taken for such expansion, are at the receiving end. A few decades back, there was no compensation worth the name, while in recent years such compensation is far below market costs. Moreover, the money given to the illiterate and half educated is, in most cases, not judiciously used. Such a development strategy is neither economically sound nor ecologically tenable. Land is being swiftly cleared for roads, bridges, highways, rail connectivity, housing and private construction without taking into consideration what happens to the land losers.

The government’s approach of compensatory development works on the premise that everything – slum land, forests, tribal homes, villages – is available at a price. And devaluing sections the environment is a small price to pay to improve the lives of 1.4 billion people. For this, is it necessary to green the denuded sections of the landscape and in a way that considers plant density age and biodiversity. The past three decades have seen a steady destruction of regional plantations and the government is not quite active on this front.

Keeping in view the vagaries of climate change, it is necessary to ensure strict monitoring of conversion of land for infrastructural development. No doubt such development is necessary, but it is equally necessary to ensure that the land losers are assured of alternative livelihood. Added to this, the ecological perspective must be kept in mind.

Recently, Chief Scientist of National Geophysical Research Institute (NGTI), Dr N. Purnachandra Rao warned that an earthquake similar in magnitude to that of Turkey is imminent in the fault lines of Uttarakhand region and can happen any time: “We have set up around 89 seismic stations in the Himalayan region focussed on Uttarakhand. We are monitoring the situation and data shows stress accumulating big time.” He opined the region would witness a massive earthquake any time due to variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Reports of house collapse are common and only a few days ago it was reported that dozens of houses collapsed in two villages, in Jammu and Kashmir due to land subsidence and mud slides that residents have linked to two high profile road and railway projects. Even in Joshimath, land subsidence has increased substantially in past few weeks since its impact became visible, according to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology. The main reason for this is the construction of a tunnel just below it by NTPC to draw water from Alaknanda and Dhauliganga. Thus, huge infrastructure projects need to be carefully planned and executed after discussions and concurrence from engineers, geophysicists and environmentalists.

In forest and rural areas, wild animals need to be nurtured as they have been grossly neglected. And finally, there is a necessity of promoting deliberate underdevelopment in ecologically sensitive regions. Though it may seem outlandish, the rebuilding of India must be closely tied to de-populating certain overburdened areas of the country. A clear policy on what areas should be available to tourism, what with limited tourism and no-go areas is essential.

Land is vital not just for agricultural production but for the economy. We cannot afford to lose land, especially in a country like India, where the density of population is quite high compared to most other countries. But with climate change, land will be affected in various ways, primarily due to desertification and deforestation as also land subsidence but this cannot be allowed to continue as the rural economy will greatly suffer and affect the poorer sections of the population for whom land is the only resource for survival. Thus, environmentalists from across the country need to come forward to evolve an effective strategy to save land and forests to optimize this valuable resource. — INFA