Following the report of a whistleblower which led to media coverage, the Chhattisgarh government has found that the family of Brijmohan Agrawal, a minister, has grabbed 4.12 hectares of forest land and 13.9 hectares of government land in Mahasamund district to build a resort. Four months ago, revenue officials had sent out notices to the encroaching company, whose directors include Sarita and Abhishek Agrawal, the wife and son of the minister. Now, while the company is relying on the courts, BJP chief minister Raman Singh has asked for an official report. However, more proactive action may be required.
Transfer of forest land to private and corporate interests is a major factor that has undermined democracy in Chhattisgarh. The Maoist movement in the state has fed off this strand to build a violent political struggle on behalf of the tribals, who indeed have been victims of land alienation. A slew of laws, especially the Forest Rights Act, were introduced to prevent appropriation of forest land by powerful individuals and entities and protect vulnerable people. But what if representatives of the state itself are found to be subverting the legal infrastructure put in place to protect forests and the rights of forest people? A part of the land taken over by Agrawal’s family appears to have been used as a village commons. Numerous economic activities depend on free access to such commons. There can be no credible case for sequestering them to a corporate entity.
The company seems to wish to show that the land acquired and fenced off was fallow, which has the effect of reducing the apparent enormity of the offence. It has also offered to exchange the land acquired with its holdings elsewhere. But precedent seems to establish that the dictionary definition of forest land is relevant in such matters, not its utilisation. Magnanimous offers to exchange forest and other government land for privately held land are simply ludicrous, because they are different categories. The revenue department has done its job, issuing notices contesting the violation. This is as it should be, when the BJP has headlined its commitment to thwarting corruption, first by demonetisation and then by supporting Nitish Kumar, who walked ought of an alliance with Lalu Prasad in Bihar citing corruption charges against the latter’s family. It would be a pity if the Chhattisgarh government did not push the process home, and accelerate it by mandating a probe.