NEW DELHI: Forest areas across the country like Pachmarhi and Gir are "finished" due to urbanisation and construction of five-star hotels for which politicians, social workers and even courts are "responsible", the Supreme Court said on Thursday.
Expressing serious concern over degradation of such eco-sensitive places, the apex court stressed that there is a need to "protect the forests" and made reference of such places in Rajasthan, Gir National Park in Gujarat and Pachmari biosphere reserve in Madhya Pradesh where hotels and resorts have come up inside the forest areas.
"Have you gone to Pachmarhi? You have finished Pachmarhi. We are responsible for this. The courts are responsible, you are responsible. It was least expected from social workers, politicians, courts and others. Pachmarhi has gone," a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said.
"The forest needs to be protected," it added.
The apex court was hearing a matter related to the eviction of around 11.8 lakh alleged illegal forest dwellers and tribals across the country.
The bench said that sometimes even the tribals residing in forest areas have been found transferring their land for building hotels and other commercial establishments.
"Sometimes even the tribals are found transferring their lands to them. Do not compel us to say anything more. We all know what is happening in these places," said the bench, also comprising justices M R Shah and B R Gavai.
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for tribal organisations opposing eviction, told the bench that those indulging in construction activities inside forest areas should be evicted but millions of innocent tribals cannot be thrown out like this.
Terming it as "quite an important issue", the bench said it would hear final arguments in the matter on November 26.
The top court was informed that nine states and Union Territories (UTs) have filed affidavits giving requisite details, including on the procedure adopted in rejecting the claims of tribals over the forest land.
Gonsalves told the bench that these states and UTs have said in their affidavits that "claims were wrongly rejected".
The counsel representing the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which was earlier asked by the apex court to make a satellite survey and place on record encroachment positions in forest areas, said they have not received information from all the states and union territories.
The FSI's counsel said they have communicated with 30 states and UTs but have received information from 11 only.
"You collect the information from other states also," the bench said and granted FSI time till October 30 for this.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for one of the parties, told the bench that responses filed by the states and UTs are "very inadequate" and at least those, whose claims over the forest lands have been rejected, should be removed.
"We will see what is the process followed (for rejecting the claims). The second issue is that we must take a final call on this," the bench observed.
Divan told the bench that FSI has said that it would take 16 years to complete the satellite survey as they have limited manpower and resources.
Divan said they have filed an application seeking a direction to the Centre to release funds to FSI so that it can be done as soon as possible.
"To preserve our forest and wildlife, action has to be taken as per the statute," he said, adding, "We have placed on record the satellite imagery both before the Act (Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006) and after the Act. Whole areas have been wiped out".
The bench issued notice on the application and asked the Centre to respond to it.
Gonsalves, while referring to the Centre's affidavit filed in the case, argued the government has said that claims were wrongly rejected throughout the country.
At the fag end of the hearing, Gonsalves said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently said in a conference that forest cover in India has increased by one million hectare in last four-five years.
The bench observed, "Forest cover has increased because of afforestation".
The top court had on August 6 observed that nine states have not followed the procedure in rejecting claims of tribals over the forest land.
It had earlier stayed its February 13 order directing 21 states to evict 11.8 lakh illegal forest dwellers whose claims over the forest land have been rejected by the authorities.
The Centre had rushed to the top court for modification of the February 13 order saying the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was a "beneficial" legislation and should be construed liberally to help "extremely poor and illiterate people" who are not well informed of their rights and procedure under the law.
The apex court had directed that authorities would also examine whether the state-level monitoring committee, which ensures that no tribal is displaced except in compliance with the formalities under the 2006 Act, were involved in the process when the claims were rejected.