Over the past few years, a major racket has emerged in Karnataka where large tracts of forest land are illegally converted to revenue land with a view to facilitating encroachments. Since encroachment of forest land cannot be regularised, it is converted to revenue land which is then grabbed by unscrupulous elements who later get it legalised using their influence with the government. The latest such incident has been reported from North Bengaluru where 18 acres of forest land valued at over Rs 500 crore was unilaterally converted to revenue land by an assistant commissioner, M G Shivanna. An inquiry conducted by the vigilance wing of the department on the orders of Forest Minister Eshwar B Khandre has confirmed that the illegal change in land status was a conspiracy to grab forest land. The land was classified as forest in June 2006, by an order of the deputy commissioner, Bengaluru Urban. However, even as the department took up afforestation work, it had to fight a legal battle to secure full ownership as the notification was challenged in courts by an association. Based on a joint survey conducted by the forest and revenue departments, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition in March, 2017, and upheld the deputy commissioner’s order. Thus, the assistant commissioner not only violated the Forest (Conservation) Act, but has also committed contempt of court.
Such illegal conversions have become the order of the day in Karnataka, as guilty officers are never brought to book. Last February, the forest department issued a notice to the revenue department after it ordered conversion of 62 acres of forest land in Tyavihalli in Hassan into grazing land. Around the same time, the revenue department was accused of converting 445 acres of forests into revenue land in Gulakamale village in Bengaluru South taluk. Instances of the revenue department reclassifying forests to help land grabbers have now become common. Though the forest department regularly files cases against such encroachments, it often fails to pursue them to their logical end.
Such large scale deviations cannot take place without the blessings of top politicians, which explains why the government refused to come down heavily on the officer concerned. For a change, Khandre has promised to initiate action against the guilty and recover all illegally converted land, but such assurances in the past have only remained on paper. The forest minister should show he means business by proceeding legally against the guilty revenue department officers, while at the same time bringing pressure on the chief minister to initiate strong action against them. Unless a few heads roll, illegal conversion of forest land will continue unabated.
(Published 22 October 2023, 18:26 IST)