Himachal court stays felling of apple trees but directs eviction of forest encroachers

Shimla: Diluting its earlier order the Himachal Pradesh High Court yesterday directed the authorities to stop cutting of apple trees planted on alleged encroached forest lands but to continue the eviction process of all illegal encroachments done by the farmers from past few decades. Deciding on a review petition the Division Bench of Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Chauhan ordered that fruit laden trees and standing crops should not be removed now and the government needs to take over the orchards on encroached lands. The Court passed the modified order and maintained that the process of vacating the forests by the government agencies from the illegal intruders would continue.

The Court has ordered that the State would sell the crop from the encroached lands this year and would use this money for the re-plantation of the original forest species. The fruit trees should be pruned subsequently in order to give way to the natural flora in these trespassed forests, said the Court order. The encroached lands should be fenced by the barbed wires to stop the future intrusions, added the Court.

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It must be remembered that thousands of apple trees have been raised in the forest lands after clearing the natural flora including the majestic Deodar trees by the clever farmers in connivance with the forest and revenue department officials. A very strong and rich apple lobby had emerged in the old parts of the State including the hill districts of Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Kinnaur and Sirmaur. No political party could ever dare to touch this dominant lobby that had given the leadership to both political ideologies. It was the State High Court that had ordered the removal of the illegal trespass by the big farmers. The decision was widely welcomed by the environmentalists and the honest farmers in the apple belt also who had not encroached any land or had cut the Deodar trees. The environmentalists have blamed the repeated phenomena of cloud bursts and landslides in the region to the massive deforestation done by some greedy apple growers.

The derive of vacating the encroachments was taken seriously by the government here for a few days but then the political parties again came to the rescue of encroachers on the name of small and marginal peasants. They organised the farmers and all parties and leaders including the Chief Minister gave the statements in favour of not cutting the trees on the intruded lands.

The State BJP and former Horticulture Minister Narendra Bragta have hailed the decision of High Court and said that many farmers would be relieved by the judicial decision. They said the small farmers who have faced the axing of trees and were targeted on political grounds should be compensated by the government. Action should be taken by the government on the officials who had allowed these encroachments at the first place, said the BJP.

A Congress spokesman also welcomed the decision and said the ban on green felling would help the environment as well as the small growers. He said the government should now regularise the encroachments.

The State CPI-M supported Kisan Sabha while welcoming the Court’s verdict said that it was due to its pressure that the Congress government had gone for a review petition in the High Court. But it has decided to carry on its agitation in favour of small and marginal peasants till they get the land rights.

KY Singh is a political observer and a senior journalist with an interest in a diverse set of issues related to Himachal Pradesh and other mountain states. He lives in Shimla.

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