The state Forest department has started demolishing farmhouses it said are built on protected land at the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. But owners of the structures have questioned the demolition drive, saying if their homes are illegal, why was permission for construction given in the first place.
“We have been living here for over 20 years. During this time, we have been paying property tax and all our papers are in place. Suddenly, we are told that we are living here illegally,” Anjali Verma, a resident whose farmhouse was demolished, said.
On Friday, the boundary wall of khasra number 1673, where a farmhouse was constructed on 10 acres, was demolished.
On Thursday, 500 metres of boundary wall of a farmhouse in khasra number 1724 was demolished. On Wednesday, the department demolished the wall of a farmhouse in khasra number 1728.
The department said so far it had reclaimed more than 100 acres of land after removing encroachments.
The wildlife sanctuary is home to over 250 species of plants, 200 species of birds, 150 species of butterflies and large mammals such as the nilgai, mongoose fox, hyena, jackal and porcupine.
The 6,814-acre sanctuary is a vital part of Delhi’s rapidly deteriorating Ridge area. Its destruction means the loss of the last remaining stretch of forest in Delhi.
In July 2013, the National Green Tribunal said “an unmanageable situation” was sprouting in Delhi, with construction taking place across protected land and no clear demarcation of which region falls under the protected Ridge forest.
In response, the Forest department created 14 digitised maps of the area to demarcate land belonging to the department.
These maps were then super-imposed with the maps of farmhouses to pinpoint areas where forest land had been encroached upon.
“There are two issues here. First, in some cases, a person might have legal right over a small piece of land, but has encroached upon additional land that belongs to the Forest department and thus increased his plot size,” Nisheeth Saxena, deputy conservator of forests and tree officer (south), said.
“Secondly, in some cases, residents have khasra documents for plots of land. But those documents are, in fact, not for the land where they are residing, but for different plots of land. So, they are residing illegally on Forest department land,” he said.
Demolitions will be carried out in 12 khasras in the initial phase of the anti-encroachment drive.
But the task of clearing encroachments will be anything but easy. The next phases of the drive involve clearing encroachments from the southern side of the sanctuary at Sanjay Colony — a 128-acre illegal settlement that is home to over 40,000 people.
Forest officials admit the size of the population and political pressures could pose hurdles for them. “The decision to begin the drive with farmhouses is partly due to the fact that even though the area is not densely populated, the returns are greater as the homes are spread across larger areas. Consequently, more land is recovered at a faster pace,” an official said.
The department said demolition of illegal farmhouses would help it recover 400 acres of forest land.