DEHRADUN: A reply obtained through an RTI query has revealed that about 1,281,397 hectares of India's forest cover is under encroachment. Madhya Pradesh tops the list with 534717.28 hectares under encroachments, followed by Assam at 317215.39 hectares while Odisha stands third with 78505.08 hectares area under squatters. Uttarakhand has 10649.11 hectares of forest land under encroachment.
The RTI was filed by Akash Vashishtha, an environmentalist who opposed wedding of wealthy Gupta brothers at Auli earlier this year and has worked over various issues in Uttarakhand such as Naini lake, plastic proliferation and others in various courts and National Green Tribunal.
The activist told that the ministry did not provide any data on the status of the country’s forests at the time of independence saying that it is not available with the Forest Survey of India.
However, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change says that the primary responsibility of protection of forests lies with the States/UTs and that the responsibility of action against the encroachments lies with the states.
"Encroachment is basically a state subject. Government of India has not role in it and states have to reclaim the land," said Siddhant Das, director general of forest and special secretary.
"India’s commitment to create an additional Carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover, as part of its COP 21 climate change goals, seems an extremely uphill task," said Vashishtha, environmentalist and lawyer based in Ghaziabad.
Interestingly, the RTI reply refused to reveal queries pertaining to encroachment by forests name, location, district wise data, data of cleared encroachments across India including districts, nature of these encroachments and area of forest in India in each state in 1947 stating that it 'Does not pertain to Forest Survey of India'.
"The first India State of Forest Report was published in 1987. So the forest data of 1947 is not available in Forest Survey of India," said the RTI reply.
India has about 7,08,273 sq km area under forest cover, which is about 21.54% of the country’s geographical area (32,87,263 sq. km).
Maharashtra ranks fourth with 60504.13 hectares of encroached forest land followed by Arunachal Pradesh ranks fourth with 58,636.13 hectares, Gujarat (34791.00 hectares), Karnataka (28001.23 hectares), Jharkhand (26496 hectares), Uttar Pradesh (26125.35 hectares), Chhattisgarh (19334.64 hectares), Tamil Nadu (15041.57 hectares), Rajasthan (10839.76 hectares), Jammu & Kashmir (10279.28 hectares), West Bengal (10,214.80 hectares), Punjab (8175.31 hectares), Kerala (7801.10 hectares), Manipur (6726.51 hectares), Andaman and Nicobar Islands (4068.69 hectares), Telangana (3056. hectares), Sikkim (2817.21 hectares), Nagaland (2479.96 hectares), Himachal Pradesh (2339.02 hectares), Andhra Pradesh (1690.72 hectares), Delhi (629.51 hectares), Daman and Diu (87.83 hectares), Haryana (17.53 hectares), Meghalaya (13.97 hectares), Mizoram (8 hectares), Tripura (6.77 hectares) and Dadra and Nagar Haveli has 0.08 hectares of forest area encroached upon.
Union territories of Puducherry, Chandigarh, Lalshwadeep and state of Goa has no forest land encroached upon.
Tushar Dash, independent researcher and expert on forest rights issues based in Bhubaneswar said, "Recognition of forest rights continues to be poor with just 3% of community forest resource rights recognised. Union ministry of tribal affairs report says that 10-13% of individual forest rights have been recognised but in reality recognition of IFRs is extremely poor and the IFR titles are recognised over very less area of IFR land then the actual occupation and claim. The review process now reveals that about 20 lakh claims have been wrongfully rejected."
"In this context the encroachment information produced by the MOEF is highly questionable. Forest dept continues to treat tribal and forest dwellers, having legal rights under Forest Rights Act 2006 as encroachers. However, the largest encroachment due to illegal forest diversions for projects, commercial monoculture plantations under CAMPA, huge Land Banks get unnoticed," Dash further added.