All courts restrained from entertaining encroached land matters
Deptts warned against altering physical status, record
JAMMU, Sept 21: After numerous directions from the High Court, Forest Department has finally filed a comprehensive report mentioning that over 64,000 persons have encroached around 3.5 lakh kanals of forest land in the length and breadth of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and looking into enormity of the issue a Division Bench comprising of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal has sought action plan from the Government for retrieval of such a huge land from the encroachers.
Moreover, the Division Bench has directed that no court in the Union Territory shall take cognizance of any issue with regard to any claim pertaining to the encroachment of the forest land except the DB hearing the instant Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
Even all the Government departments have been explicitly told not to make any sort of change in the record or physical status of the land identified by the Forest Department as under encroachment.
The comprehensive report, which has been submitted by the Forest Department, after being reprimanded by the highest court of the Union Territory a number of times, contains Forest Division-wise details of encroached land and the names of the encroachers, which may include former Ministers, legislators, bureaucrats or other influential persons although names of VIPs have not been separately reflected.
When the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) titled Save Animals Value Environment (SAVE) Versus J&K and Others came up for hearing through virtual mode, Advocate General D C Raina along with Deputy Advocate General Ayjaz Lone submitted before the Division Bench headed by Chief Justice that pursuant to the directions issued on September 3, 2020, Forest Department has filed a comprehensive report of around 3000 pages containing the list of encroachers of the forest land in the length and breadth of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
As the report was not before it, the Division Bench directed the IT Cell in the Registry to place it before the court for consideration/examination on next date of hearing after scanning each and every page. On this, Justice Rajesh Bindal repeatedly asked the Advocate General and Deputy Advocate General to point out the VIP encroachers from the list submitted by the Forest Department.
However, the Advocate General as well as Deputy Advocate General submitted that this exercise will take some time as the report is voluminous. The DB also asked Advocate Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed appearing for the Public Interest Litigation through the virtual mode to do the similar exercise and inform the court on next date of hearing about the VIP encroachers as well as on whether correct particulars of the encroachers have been recorded or somebody else’s names have been recorded to shield the VIP encroachers.
On the request of Advocate Ahmed, the DB directed the Deputy Advocate General to give hard copy of the report to the counsel for the PIL within a day.
During the course of hearing, the Division Bench was also informed by the Advocate General that in pursuance to the last directions, Government has constituted a committee headed by Principal Secretary Revenue Department and comprising of four more officers for deciding complaints pertaining to the encroachments of Forest land/property.
At this stage, Advocate Ahmed submitted that some judicial members should also be incorporated so that there remains element of transparency and accountability as bureaucrats are prone to pulls and pressures from bigwigs. “Given the level of corruption in J&K and the quantum of land/its value, the judicial members will attach credibility to the committee”, he added.
The Division Bench also expressed its strong displeasure over absence of Administrative Secretaries of Forest and Revenue Departments, who on late date of hearing were directed to remain present through the virtual mode. On this, Deputy Advocate General submitted that Secretary Forest Department was quarantined and in her place Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) is present.
“She could have appeared through virtual mode….what steps her from doing so”, Justice Bindal asked. Pointing towards absence of even Principal Secretary Revenue Department, Justice Bindal remarked, “everything is taken casually in Jammu and Kashmir including orders of the courts”.
The DB was inclined to impose cost for the absence of Principal Secretary Revenue but on the repeated assurance of Senior Additional Advocate General S S Nanda, the DB deferred imposition of cost but with the condition that on next date of hearing he (Principal Secretary Revenue) will remain present.
The highest court of J&K UT also directed that the committee constituted by the Chief Secretary in pursuance to the last directions should create a dedicated website before next date of hearing and post all the relevant details on it for the information of general public.
The DB further directed the Deputy Advocate General to submit before next date of hearing an action plan for retrieval of encroached forest land and also file action taken report with regard to the compliance of all the previous directions explicitly mentioned in the order dated September 3, 2020.
Looking into importance of the matter, the DB directed that no court in the Union Territory shall take cognizance of any issue with regard to any claim pertaining to the encroachment of forest land except the DB hearing the instant Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Even all the Government departments have been explicitly told not to make any sort of change in the record or physical status of the land identified by the Forest Department as under encroachment.
The DB further said that action should be taken against all those officials who were found involved in the encroachment of land and in recording illegal entries, which was retrieved pursuant to the directions of the court in the Poonch district.
As per the comprehensive report submitted by the Forest Department, 6583 persons have encroached 1496 hectares of land in Anantnag Forest Division, 144 hectares by 604 persons in Awantipora, 157 hectares by 1062 persons in Bandipore, 189 hectares by 938 persons in Basohli, 253 hectares by 835 persons in Batote, 159 hectares by 959 persons in Bhaderwah, 237 hectares by 541 persons in Billawar, 232 hectares by 899 persons in Doda, 499 hectares by 704 persons in Jammu, 415 hectares by 1586 persons in Baramulla, 52 hectares by 104 persons in Kathua, 550 hectares in Kralpora, 39 hectares in Kishtwar, 355 hectares by 1399 persons in Kulgam, 595 hectares by 2632 persons in Langate, 368 hectares by 2496 persons in Lidder, 225 hectares by 103 persons in Mahore, 3 hectares by 15 persons in Marwah, 579 hectares by 1225 persons in Nowshera, 655 hectares by 3160 persons in Pir Panjal Forest Division, 1472 hectares by 29458 persons in Poonch, 197 hectares by 602 persons in Rajouri, 2106 hectares by 3370 persons in Ramban, 316 hectares by 335 persons in Ramnagar, 319 hectares by 651 persons in Reasi, 52 hectares by 11 persons in Samba, 1026 hectares by 3882 persons in Shopian, 463 hectares by 2312 persons in Sindh Forest Division, 16 hectares by 121 persons in Tangmarg and 9 hectares by 302 persons in Udhampur.