The Karnataka government has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court fixing the total deemed forest area in the state at 3.3 lakh hectares, 6.64 lakh hectares less than the figure arrived at 20 years ago, drawing charges of helping encroachers.
The government has thus denotified 6.64 lakh hectares of the 9.94 lakh hectares of deemed forest land. Of this, 1,62,073.52 hectares of land was denotified because it does not meet the criterion of having 50 trees per hectare, and over 27,604.61 hectares have lost forest status because of the repetition of survey numbers.
Confirming the development to indianexpress.com, additional chief secretary (forest, ecology and environment) Jawaid Akhtar said, “Yes, the government has filed an affidavit in this regard. The extent of deemed forest land fixed by the government is now 3.3 lakh hectares.”
In 1996, the Supreme Court issued an interim order banning all non-forestry activities in the forest area without central government approval. The word forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning and any area in the government records irrespective of its ownership will be regarded as a forest, the court had said.
Complying with the direction, the government in 1997 appointed a Reconstituted Expert Committee, which identified 9.94 lakh hectares of deemed forest land.
Revenue Minister R Ashok stated Wednesday that the 6.64 lakh hectares of the denotified forest land would now be under the revenue department, which will identify the extent of land needed for public projects. He also said the encroached-on deemed forest land would be leased to the encroachers for 30 years.
A senior Indian Forest Service officer with the forest department termed the government decision as unfortunate. “This is a big jolt to conservation. This will strengthen the arms of encroachers,” he said.
Lashing out at the government, former principal chief conservator of forest BK Singh said, “The state has sent a revised proposal to reduce deemed forest land to one third of the extent identified earlier in 2002. One of the main reasons stated is that the tree density in many such areas of deemed forests has gone down. In other words, the state admits that they have failed to protect deemed forest land. The state could also think of rewilding these areas with native species. Instead they want to delete them from the deemed forest list.”
The former head of the state’s forest force alleged a hidden agenda behind the government decision. He said that by keeping the areas out of the deemed forest list, politicians wanted to help encroachers. According to Singh, the government can use such land for development projects, without having to seek central government clearance under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
“In due course, the remaining deemed forests will also be encroached on and the government may come up with another proposal reducing the deemed forest extent even further,” he said.