Monday, August 03, 2015

Why HP Forest Cops Hacking At Fruit-Laden Apple Trees?

In peak apple season, many orchards in Himachal have unexpected visitors. They are forest officials armed with a High Court order to crack down on encroachments on forest land.

In peak apple season, many orchards in Himachal Pradesh have unexpected visitors. They aren’t traders or bulk buyers — but forest officials armed with a High Court order to crack down on encroachments on forest land. The fruit cannot be harvested, and owners are in panic. What is the crisis in the Rs 2,500 crore apple business in the state? 

The High Court Intervention 
Hearing a PIL based on a letter written by a state resident alleging largescale encroachment on government land by private orchards, the High Court on April 6 asked the forest department to destroy, at the encroacher’s cost, all such plants and crops. It ordered the vacated land to be fenced with barbed wire, also at the encroacher’s cost. As forest department teams went about hacking fruit-laden trees and seizing the land, protests, rallies and dharnas erupted across the apple belt. A farmers’ body began a ‘Chipko Movement’ to stop the felling of trees, heavy with fruit waiting to be harvested. The opposition BJP attacked the government, and the Congress demanded that the government bail out “small and marginal growers”. 

The Government Response 
The government moved an application seeking modifications in the order, pleading that the felling of trees would reduce green cover and affect biodiversity. It promised to enforce all earlier directions of the court on removing encroachments, take over illegal orchards, and fence the land. The court halted the felling, but made the Chief Secretary and Additional CS (Forests) responsible for picking the fruit, ensuring their sale, not allowing any more plantations of apples, pears, plums, cherries, or almonds etc., and taking back the encroached land. They were directed to prune the trees after harvesting, and fence the land. The court asked the Director General of Police to assist in the exercise. It also asked for a status report and details of encroachers, and an explanation of why action was not taken against officials who had allowed the orchards to come up. 

The Encroachers 
As per data provided to the High Court, 16,000 cases of encroachment have been detected in the state, involving 6.80 lakh bighas of forest land. Shimla district is the worst hit — 4,900 cases of encroachment under 10 bighas, and 1,079 over 10 bighas, mainly in Rohru, Jubbal, Kotkhai and Chopal. Most alleged encroachers are influential people, who are either in politics themselves, or have strong political connections or connections in the government. Some small and marginal farmers too seem to have been involved, with forest and revenue officials winking at their actions, possibly in return for monetary considerations. Some forest officials too are alleged to have encroached on forest land. 

The Politics 
Most encroachments have been the result of a nexus between local people,forest officials, and revenue and law enforcing agencies. Even after the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 came into force, orchard owners continued to expand plantations. Both the Congress and BJP backed orchard owners, and attempted to regularise the encroachments. In 1994, the Congress notified an encroachment policy, which the High Court struck down as illegal and unconstitutional three years later. In 2002, the BJP started a similar exercise, but lost power the following year, thus failing to give it practical shape. 

What Now? 
The forest department is under the scanner of the High Court. At the same time, the government is under pressure to provide relief to growers who encroached on less than 10 bighas, and those who will become landless if their orchards go. A powerful apple lobby is complicating the issue further. 

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