Ten years after animal rights activist and environmentalist Sonya Ghosh petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on the urgent need to conserve and protect the Delhi Ridge, hundreds of acres of prime land continue to be in possession of encroachers due to alleged collusion with officials and sheer apathy on the part of the Delhi government.
Mahesh Thakur, Advocate-On-Record of Supreme Court speaks to The Probe on Delhi Ridge encroachment
Ghosh’s contention was that the fragile ecology of the Delhi Ridge, an extension of the Aravalli Range extending from Tughlakabad 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 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 6,200 hectares – was declared as a ‘Reserved Forest’ as far back as 1994.
Following a slew of miscellaneous orders, the NGT passed a substantive order on January 15, 2021, observing that the Supreme Court of India itself had issued directions for the protection of the Delhi Ridge as far back as 1996.
The SC had ordered vast swathes of uncultivated Gaon Sabha land (common village land) in 14 villages on the Southern Ridge to be merged into the ‘Reserved Forest’, following which the Delhi government issued a notification to this effect the same year. This land, located in urban villages including Neb Sarai, Satbari, Asola, Dera Mandi, Bhatti, Chattarpur and Rajokri, came to about 4,000 hectares.
Significantly, the NGT had summoned the Divisional Commissioner cum Revenue Secretary of the Delhi govt on March 11, 2019, 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.
“The order of NGT is required to be implemented by the forest department. Those who have approached the high court have said that their construction lies outside the area demarcated by the forest department. They also say that the demarcation was done much before the particular construction. And now a fresh demarcation is required to be done, which in my opinion is not correct. Because the forest department should have brought it to the Delhi High Court’s notice that this demarcation was done recently at the direction of NGT, and no further demarcation is required. The only thing which is required to be done is to appreciate and understand whether the construction made by these parties, who have approached the high court, is within the forest area or not,” says Mahesh Thakur, Advocate-On-Record, Supreme Court.
In its January 15, 2021 order, the NGT observed that “no non-forest activity is permissible in the Ridge area” and directed the Delhi government to notify all pieces of land which were un-encroached upon and handed over to the Delhi Department of Forest and Wildlife which was to be notified under Section 20 of the Indian Forest Act and secured with wall or fences. This process is the final step in declaring a piece of land as ‘Reserved Forest’ land.
The Tribunal also ordered the Delhi government to identify and retrieve all encroachment upon land within three months, fixing the responsibility for the same with the 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 amongst others as its members.
So far, as per the information shared by the Delhi Forest Department with Sonya Ghosh, with whom The Probe got in touch, the Oversight Committee (OC) has just held five meetings since February 12, 2021.
The frequency of the meetings, too, dropped over the months. The second meeting was held 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 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 mentioned. The minutes merely noted that 1060 hectares of land were under encroachment in the 19 villages of Southern Ridge as on April 5, 2019. It added that 101 hectares of encroachment were removed in the financial year 2019-20 and 20 hectares in 2020-21. As per these calculations, 939 hectares 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 hectares of encroachments had been removed, including 10.43 hectares since the third meeting. During this meeting, the DG, Forests asked the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) and Deputy Commissioner (DC) of the respective areas to compile a timeline for carrying out the 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 were made free of encroachment over six months since the fourth meeting. 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 over 800 hectares of forest land on the Southern Ridge continue to be under encroachment.
"The NGT has also directed the forest department and the Delhi government to demolish the illegal construction on forest land. Perhaps there is something that the government does not want to do. For whatever reason, that might be a political reason or maybe a human reason that they may not be inclined to demolish these constructions," says Thakur.
As per the Revenue Secretary’s affidavit in the NGT, such area came to a mammoth 342 hectares, which comes to 3.42 square kilometres. Just for perspective, the Delhi zoo occupies 71 hectares.
As per the minutes of the fourth meeting, the DG, Forests took cognizance 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.
A perusal of these case files by The Probe revealed a common thread in the otherwise convoluted contentions made by the litigants before the Delhi High Court: That their property did not encroach upon forest/gaon sabha land at all and/or their claims/dispute had not been settled, and the Forest Department had in fact erred in 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 can be seen as delaying tactics being employed by the alleged encroachers’ advocates.
Frustrated, Ghosh moved the Delhi High Court in August 2022 to seek vacation of all such stay orders. “The appeal against an NGT order lies in the Supreme Court, not High Court. Further, the demarcation of the forest land cannot be challenged,” she said, citing her counsel in the NGT, Senior Advocate Raj Punjwani, noted for notching up many victories in high-profile environmental cases across the country.
However, the Delhi High Court 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. She is now mulling again to move the Delhi High Court or the Supreme Court.
A case in point is that of Akbar Ahmad ‘Dumpy’, a high-flying UP-based politician once close to Sanjay Gandhi, who has now hung up his boots and owns a massive farmhouse in Sainik Farms. Upon receiving a demolition/eviction notice from the Delhi Forest Department that part of his sprawling farmhouse encroached upon forest land, he moved the Delhi High Court against the order issued by DCF (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 in the matter.
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 randomly-selected case, another resident of Sainik Farms, Brij Mohini Marwaha, also obtained a stay order from the Delhi HC on April 6, 2022, challenging an 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 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 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 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.
He also alleged that it was common for the encroachers to escape demolition/eviction action by paying off officials accompanying JCB teams and then moving 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 we further asked him why so many people go to court and employ similar lines 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.”
The obstacles posed by stay orders in the restoration of the Delhi Ridge to its past pristine glory override even those cases where all due paperwork is in place. 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 continue to remain under encroachment and are embroiled in legal disputes due to official collusion, apathy and corruption as the government continues to watch in complete silence.