Times News Network, 28 September 2018
Protecting forest lands in Maharashtra, the Bombay high court on Thursday dismissed 173 petitions, including one filed by Rohiqa Mistry, wife of the former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry, challenging the state’s move to treat their holdings as “private forests”.
The court refused to remove the forest tag for the plots ranging from one acre to hundreds of acres in Mumbai, Thane and other parts of the state.
“The anxiety of this court is to maintain the forest cover in the state,” the judges said. According to a state government source, the HC order will protect over 14,000 hectares reserved as forests. “It is as an afterthought that these petitions are brought by those having commercial interest and at their behest it would be highly unsafe to reopen the matter…,” the court said.
“It would be improper to rely upon the one-sided version of the petitioners, some of whom are but builders and developers and negate the binding directions of this court or enable to defeat and frustrate (the court orders),” a division bench of Justices Satyaranjan Dharmadhikari and Prakash Naik the judges said.
There was relief for three plot owners with land holdings in Borivli, Ambernath and Pune. The high court asked the collector to decide whether any part of their land was “private forest”.
The issue dates back to 1950s when the original landowners were issued show cause notices as to why their plots of land should not be declared as private forests. In 1975, according to the state following the enactment of the Maharashtra Private Forests (Acquisition) Act, these lands were earmarked as ‘forests’. The state, however, did not make the appropriate entries in the revenue records. After a PIL was filed, the state entered lands, including the ones purchased by the petitioners from the original land owners, in its records as “forests”. This meant that no development permissions could be granted.
The petitions filed in the HC in 2016 said a 2014 Supreme Court judgement that freed large tracts of land in Mumbai and other areas from the private forests tag was applicable in their cases. The apex court order had said that the state had no right to treat the lands as private forests 50 years later merely on the basis of notices issued in the 1950s that were not acted upon.
The petitioners said it was “unreasonable and arbitrary” to treat their plots as ‘forests/private forests’ by initiating action over five decades later. They contended that the original owners had never been issued notices and these lands itself had never been forests.
Senior advocate Navroze Seervai and government pleader Abhinandan Vagyani, counsels for the state, said the lands were deemed as private forests in 1975 and their ownership vested with the government. The state lawyers said that the petitioners were not the original owners and “any sale or transaction (after 1975) would not confer any rights on the purchasers as it was not vested with them”.
Environmental activists welcome the high court order. “This is a tremendous victory for the public and for the forest department. This landmark order will result in several thousands of hectares of forest lands being protected. Almost every one of these petitioners had approached the High Court asking for relief based on the 2014 Supreme Court order, even though the facts of these cases were completely different. I am glad that the high court judges saw through this stratagem, and have held in favour of protecting our forests,” said Debi Goenka of Bombay Environmental Action Group.