Official apathy, collusion thwart court orders to preserve Delhi ridge, being lost to human avarice

Despite SC and NGT orders, the Delhi Forest Department has failed to secure over 850 hectares of forest land on the Southern Ridge itself, official documents indicate

Representational image
Representational image

Rahul Gul

Almost thirty years after the Delhi government declared the Ridge, an integral part of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis, as ‘Reserved Forest’, vast swathes of the once-pristine forest land remain under encroachment and embroiled in legal disputes due to official collusion, apathy and alleged corruption.

Following this notification dated May 22, 2994 issued by the Delhi Lieutenant Governor (LG), the Supreme Court had issued orders for the protection of the Ridge in 1996 while hearing a batch of writ petitions, while the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been seized of the issue since 2013 following a petition filed by activist Sonya Ghosh. The latter cracked the whip against the Delhi government in 2021, asking it to take time-bound action.

However, the Delhi Department of Forests and Wildlife has failed to take possession of over 850 hectares (Ha) (1 hectare is equal to 10,000 square meters; a football field measures 7,140 sq m) of forest and gaon sabha land (common village land) on the Southern Ridge itself, official documents indicate.

This data was gleaned from an analysis of the minutes of the periodic meetings held by a high-powered Overview Committee (OC) constituted on an order issued by the NGT on January 15, 2021 in Ghosh’s petition (no. OA 58/2013).

The NGT had ordered the government to act within three months to secure and fence all the undisputed forest land after notifying it under Section 20 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 as well as chalk out a plan to recover the rest from the clutches of the encroachers.

Meanwhile, hundreds of alleged encroachers – many of whom are evidently rich and influential individuals owning sprawling properties in tony localities such as Sainik Farms, Satbari and Asola – have obtained judicial stay orders on specious grounds, with the counsels representing the Forest Department often failing to take an effective and robust legal stand to defend it during the hearings, say legal experts.

Such judicial intervention happened even after the Delhi Forest and Revenue departments followed due process of law by issuing public notices asking the encroachers to hand over the forest land, affixed individual notices on their properties and sent JCB machines to carry out demolition and eviction action which allegedly returned without accomplishing the task, indicating that something fishy was afoot.

The petition filed by Sonya Ghosh, a noted animal rights activist and environmentalist who is an English professor in Delhi University, had cited a news report titled ‘Three illegal roads cut through forest’ carried on February 28, 2013 by English daily The Times of India, pertaining to Rajokri Forest in the Southern Ridge.

It pointed out that the fragile ecology of the Delhi ridge, an extension of the Aravalli Range extending from Tuglaqabad in the south and Wazirabad in north Delhi, which protected the city from turning into a desert like Rajasthan, was being ravaged due to human encroachment, with rampant residential, religious and commercial construction activity going on.

This, it said, was despite the fact that the 7,777 odd hectares (1 hectare is equivalent to 10,000 square metres) of land falling in Northern Ridge, Central Ridge, South Central Ridge and Southern Ridge – the latter itself comprising of 6,200 hectares (Ha) – was declared as a ‘Reserved Forest’ through a notification issued by the Delhi LG in 1994.

The Aravalli range stretches from Champaner in Gujarat through Rajasthan upto Delhi. In Haryana, it is spread across Mahendragarh, Rewari, Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat.

At the turn of the last century, 80 per cent of this range was covered with natural forests. Between 1975- 2019, it has lost 4,452 sq km of vegetation, an area that is equal to 40 per cent of Delhi.

Experts predict that in the next 40 years, a total of 16,360 sq km will have been converted to housing colonies.

The Delhi Ridge, experts point out, act as the ‘green lungs’ of the worst polluted city in the world and act as a barrier to the area turning into a desert like adjoining Rajasthan.

Following a slew of miscellaneous orders, the NGT passed a substantive order on January 15, 2021, observing that the Supreme Court of India had issued directions for the protection of the Delhi ridge while hearing writ petitions in 1996.

The SC had ordered vast swathes of uncultivated Gaon Sabha land (common village land) in 14 villages located on the Southern Ridge to be merged into the ‘Reserved Forest’, following which the Delhi govt issued a notification to this effect the same year. This land, located in urban villages including Neb Sarai, Satbari, Asola, Dera Mandi, Bhatti, Chhattarpur and Rajokri itself came to about 4,000 Ha.

Significantly, the NGT had summoned the Divisional Commissioner cum Revenue Secretary of the Delhi govt on March 11, 2019 after the glacial pace of progress in the matter following which he submitted an affidavit on April 3, 2019 regarding the demarcation and encroachment status of forest and gaon sabha land in 19 villages of the Southern Ridge. 

As per this document, the total area of ridge/forest land in Southern Ridge was 17,827 Ha, of which 17,735 Ha had been demarcated using the Total Station Method (TSM). Over 4684 bighas (1100 Ha) land was under encroachment, and the courts had granted stay orders in the case of 1369 bighas (342 Ha), the officer informed the NGT.

Official apathy, collusion thwart court orders to preserve Delhi ridge, being lost to human avarice
Official apathy, collusion thwart court orders to preserve Delhi ridge, being lost to human avarice

In its January 15, 2021 order, the NGT observed that “no non-forest activity is permissible in the Ridge area” and directed the Delhi govt to notify all pieces of land which was un-encroached upon and handed over to the Delhi Department of Forest and Wildlife to be notified under Section 20 of the Indian Forest Act and secured with wall or fences within three months within a period of three months. This process is the final step in preserving land declared as ‘Reserved Forest’.

The Tribunal also ordered the Delhi govt to identify and retrieve all encroached upon land within a period of three months, fixing the responsibility for the same with Delhi Chief Secretary, who is also the chairman of the Ridge Management Board.

Towards this objective, it directed the setting up of an Oversight Committee (OC) headed by the Director General (DG), Forests, Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), with senior officials of the Delhi Forest Department, Revenue Department, Delhi Police etc to be its members.

The Oversight Committee (OC) has so far held only five meetings, and the minutes of the meetings give the impression of the OC just going through the motions, generating tonnes of paperwork with no real progress on the ground.

The DG, Forests typically ‘expresses displeasure’ at the tardy pace of things, asking officials to hasten things up, and its then business as usual till the next round. Moreover, key members of the committee often fail to show up.

The frequency of the meetings too dropped over the months. The first meeting was held on February 12, 2021, the second on March 16, 2021, the third on September 30, 2021, the fourth on February 18, 2022 and the fifth on October 3, 2022.

The minutes of the first meeting reveal that no meaningful or specific data was presented or discussed, with merely some general directions being issued to officials down the line.

As per the minutes of the second meeting held on March 16, 2021, similar orders were again issued and no data for encroachments removed since the first meeting was held was mentioned. The minutes merely noted that 1060 Ha of land was under encroachment in the 19 villages of Southern Ridge as on April 5, 2019. It added that 101 Ha of encroachment was removed in financial year 2019-20 and 20 Ha in 2020-21. As per these calculations 939 Ha were still encroached upon.

The minutes of the third meeting held on September 30, 2021 were not available.

In the fourth meeting held on February 18, 2022, it was stated that 27.17 Ha of encroachments had been removed, including 10.43 Ha since the third meeting. The meeting concluded with the DG, Forests asking the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) and Deputy Commissioner (DC) of the respective areas to compile a timeline for carrying out encroachment removal drive by March 21, 2022.

The minutes of the fifth meeting, held on October 3, 2022, state that just 6.28 hectares of forest land was made free of encroachment over a period of six months since the fourth meeting was held on February 18, 2022. In the previous ten months, from April 1, 2021 to February 18, 2022, only about 17 hectares were made encroachment-free, it said.

All this data indicates that at least 850 Ha of forest land located on the Southern Ridge continues to be under encroachment.

The minutes of the fourth and fifth meetings also mentioned the data for the area under Section 20 proceedings, though it is presented in a technical way using bureaucratic jargon.

As per the minutes of the fourth meeting, ‘phase 1’ proceedings were underway for around 4250 Ha, and ‘phase 2’ for 1290 Ha. Remarks indicate that the paperwork for the process was caught up in red tape with various functionaries including area MLAs and departments.

Consolidated data was not mentioned in the minutes of the fifth meeting.

The minutes also bring to the fore the other big malaise affecting the exercise: private property owners securing judicial stay orders to delay or outrightly stymie the Forest Department’s bid to take over properties falling in forest and gaon sabha land.

As per the Revenue Secretary’s affidavit in the NGT, such area came to a mammoth 342 Ha, which comes to 3.42 square kilometers. Just for perspective, the Delhi zoo occupies 71 Ha.

As per the minutes of the fourth meeting, the DG, Forest took cognisance of this issue and directed the Forest and Revenue Departments to compile a list of such cases and submit it to him by March 7, 2022 to seek the intervention of the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.

In the fifth meeting, it was mentioned that 77 such cases were pending with respect to South Forest Division and 13 in West Forest Division, altogether affecting 300 Ha of land in all. Again, the DCF (South) and DCF (West) were directed to give a ‘gist of nature and reason for stay orders’ within 15 days.

Neither direction evidently came to anything and such stay cases continue to linger on, clogging the justice system, thwarting the Delhi Forest Department’s exercise and literally mocking the NGT’s order.

An analysis of some such cases reveals that many of them pertain to rich and influential people owning sprawling properties and bungalows in such tony south Delhi localities as Sainik Farms (located in Neb Sarai, Saidulajaib and Devli villages), Asola, Dera Mandi and Bhati.

The cases contain a common thread in the otherwise convoluted contentions topped with legalese made by the litigants before the Delhi HC: That their property did not encroach upon forest/gaon sabha land at all or their claims/dispute had not been settled, and the Forest Department had in fact erred in the first place by serving them a notice of eviction or demolition.

The typical relief they ask for: carrying out re-demarcation of the land by the authorities, and in the meanwhile, cessation of any coercive action.

Once a stay order is obtained, it gets stretched for years, with multiple hearings which see delaying tactics being employed by the litigants.

“Such litigation has effectively scuttled the NGT’s order and ten years of efforts to save the Delhi ridge. The lawyers fail to submit all the relevant facts before the court and don’t approach it with clean hands,” says Ghosh. 

Frustrated, Ghosh moved Delhi HC in August, 2022 to seek vacation of such stay orders. However, the Delhi HC bench which heard her vacated the stay orders in just the two cases in which she got impleaded as per the procedure, while the stay orders continue to hold good in the other cases.

"I may move the Delhi HC again or even the Supreme Court," she said.

A case in point is that of erstwhile high-flying politician Akbar Ahmad ‘Dumpy’ who owns a sprawling farmhouse in Sainik Farms, in Devli village land. Upon receiving a demolition/eviction notice from the Delhi Forest Department that part of the farmhouse encroached upon forest land, he moved the Delhi High Court against the Deputy Conservator of Forests (South).

His petition (Writ no. 12430/2021) was tagged to two similar cases filed by his neighbours and in an order dated October 29, 2021, the Delhi HC restrained the DCF (South) from taking any further action till the final order was issued.

Over a year and several hearings later, the matter is yet to be decided and is now listed to be heard on February 2, 2023.

In some cases, the khasra number (address of a plot as per revenue records) of a property is not mentioned in the notification issued by the Delhi Forest or Revenue Department as only part of it falls in notified forest land.

In one such randomly-selected case, another resident of Sainik Farms, in Neb Sarai village land, Brij Mohini Marwaha too obtained a stay order from the Delhi HC on April 6, 2022 following the affixation of a eviction/demolition notice pasted on their house by the Delhi Forest Department. The court also acceded to her plea for a re-demarcation of the property.

The court went on to vacate the stay in an order dated August 22, 2022, citing the January 15, 2021 NGT order in the Sonya Ghosh case. It noted that the demarcation in 19 villages of the Southern Ridge had attained finality and could not be challenged, and asked the Delhi Forest Department to take the necessary action after serving her with due notice.

The woman then filed a Letter Patent Appeal (LPA no 546/2022) before the Chief Justice, and on September 22, 2022 again managed to obtain relief in the form of an order by the court to the SDM (Saket) to carry out re-demarcation of the property within three months while restraining the Delhi Forest Department from proceeding with eviction/demolition action.

Interestingly, the court recorded the fact that the order had been passed with the consent of the counsel representing the Delhi Forest Department. 

The owner of an adjacent property too managed to secure a similar order, and altogether, they put a spanner in the Forest Department’s bid to take over sizeable land, worth several crores in monetary terms and invaluable in terms of environmental cost, to be added to existing forest land.

It is a different matter that although the three months’ time granted by the court expired on December 22, 2022, the Delhi Forest Department is yet to take action to recover the land.

This outcome happened despite the authorities diligently following due process of law to acquire the forest land.

On September 9, 2019, the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Saket, had issued a notice (no. GS/Forest/2019/1901) directing everyone to immediately move out of illegally encroached upon forest and gaon sabha land falling in Neb Sarai village.

Following this, the District Magistrate, South District, who functions under the Delhi Revenue Department, issued another public notice (DIP/Shabdarth/0696/19-20), duly published in national dailies, observing that the encroachments had not been removed.

The notice spelled out the fact said that the survey to identify all land as forest or gaon sabha land had been carried out using the TSM and DGPS methods, and all such survey maps with encroachment details had been verified and uploaded on the official webs.

The notice again called upon the encroachers to remove encroachments of any kinds from government land within 7 days, failing which, the notice read, the action for removal of encroachments would be initiated by the District Task Force, and the cost of demolition etc would be recovered from the encroachers.

The public notice issued by DM (South)
The public notice issued by DM (South)

After some delay, presumably due to the pandemic, the Delhi Forest Department moved ahead with the process and affixed notices (no. 19279-84 dated January 4, 2022) on the properties owned by Marwaha and her neighbours, informing them that their properties were encroaching upon khasra no. 516 of village Neb Sarai which had been notified as Reserve Forest land as per notifications issued in 1994 and 1996. They were asked to vacate the land or face demolition.

Official apathy, collusion thwart court orders to preserve Delhi ridge, being lost to human avarice

In April, 2022, according to a source in the Delhi Forest Department’s field unit located in the Hauz Rani City Forest, located in the vicinity of Sainik Farms, JCB machines were sent to raze the offending structures, but returned empty-handed, allegedly after exchange of money. An RTI application was filed by Sonya Ghosh with the Delhi Forest Department to ascertain what had happened, but it was simply transferred from one district office to another and remains unanswered till date.

The alleged encroachers then moved Delhi High Court and obtained a stay order.

Another notice (no. 111/6-23 dated September 15, 2023) was affixed on the properties by the department after this stay order got vacated, but again, interim relief for three months was obtained from the court.

Official apathy, collusion thwart court orders to preserve Delhi ridge, being lost to human avarice

Although the stipulated period of three months has now long expired, with no re-demarcation being carried out, the department has failed to go ahead to reclaim the land.

“Such applications for re-demarcation are often just a paper formality which never get entertained. Even if it’s done, everyone knows that each piece of land had been given geo-coordinates when the TSM/DGPS survey was carried out, and not even one inch can get moved. It’s all just a tactic to indefinitely delay the acquisition of land,” the source said speaking on the condition of anonymity.

He also alleged that it was not unheard for the alleged encroachers to actually escape demolition/eviction action by paying off officials accompanying JCB teams, and then going on to move the courts.

“Even in the court, the lawyers for the Forest Department are pliable which is why everyone ends up getting the relief,” he went on to allege.

When contacted, Mandeep Mittal, Deputy Conservator of Forests (South) parried the allegations of corruption and collusion.

Asked why so many stay cases are pending pertaining to the area in his jurisdiction, despite the instructions from the DG, Forests issued during the Overview Committee’s meetings, he said, “Well, it’s inappropriate for me to comment since the cases are sub-judice.”

 “We can’t challenge them till the final orders are given in each case,” he claimed.

Asked why so many people go to the court and employ a similar line of arguments and whether the counsels for the Forest Department mount an effective legal battle, he said, “You are oversimplifying it, it’s not like that. Each case is unique. We can’t prevent an aggrieved person from moving the court and the courts can grant any relief they deem fit.”

Requested to comment about allegations oof JCBs returning from demolition sites without accomplishing the task, he said, “Everything is done as per the law.”

Responding to allegations of ‘fixed hearings’ in the court, he said, “The counsels representing the department get briefed appropriately and argue each case as required.”

In response to another question regarding fresh demarcation orders from the court, Mittal said there was often a problem with the files getting stuck with the Revenue Department.

National Herald attempted to speak to Monica Priyadarshi, District Magistrate (South) for her response to such issues but could not get through.

Efforts to seek the comments of CD Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and head of department, did not bear fruit as the staff manning his office phones claimed he was busy in meetings.

This copy will be updated if and when the two officers respond.

To get clarity about the nuances of the legal issues involved, National Herald got in touch with Mahesh Thakur, Advocate on Record (AOR) in the Supreme Court. 

“During the hearings, the counsel representing the Delhi Forest Department should have brought to the notice of the Delhi High Court that the demarcation of the forest land was done recently rather than some distant past and no further demarcation was required,” he said.

“The NGT had ordered demolition of properties falling on forest land. Maybe some cases are genuine. Perhaps the Delhi govt did not wish to do so in some cases due to political or humanitarian reasons. But this order of the NGT was required to be brought to the notice of the Delhi HC during the hearings. Either this was not done or it was not properly appreciated,” he added.

“The High Court has its own jurisdiction, but someone needs to point out to the court that such cases were arising out of the NGT’s order in the Sonya Ghosh case. The Oversight Committee could go the court itself directly too,” Thakur said.

He was of the opinion that Sonya Ghosh was well within her rights to again move the Delhi HC or file an execution or contempt petition in the NGT to ensure that the latter’s order is carried out in letter and spirit.

In another ominous piece of news, the draft Regional Plan 2041 for the National Capital Region, which gives a detailed break-up of the natural conservation zones, has excluded the Aravalli hills and all the tributaries of the Yamuna, Ganga, Kali, Hindon and Sahbi, the animal sanctuaries and water bodies such as Badkal lake, Surajkund, Damdama lake (in Haryana) and Siliserh lake in Rajasthan.

It has also removed the cap on construction which in these conservation zones had been fixed at 0.5 per cent of the land and formed an integral part of the existing 2021 plan.

What this means is that the powerful real estate lobby operating in Gurugram, Faridabad and Mewat can now develop these properties for commercial and residential purposes.

Environmentalists are aghast at such developments, and warn that the day is not far when every single square inch of land is covered with concrete by contractors and developers in mankind's unquenchable quest for 'development' and future generations would know of trees, birds and butterflies only through animations and images.

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    Published: 31 Jan 2023, 8:54 PM