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Delhi Ridge: Over 800 Hectares Of Forest Land Under Encroachment Despite NGT Orders

The Probe accesses documents that indicate that over 800 hectares of forest land in Southern Ridge itself is still under encroachment even after NGT’s clear orders in January 2021; 300 hectares are embroiled in legal disputes mounted by alleged encroachers.

By Esha Goel
New Update

publive-image An image of one of the ridges of Delhi | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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.

publive-image An excerpt from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order dated 15 January, 2021 | Courtesy: NGT

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.

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

“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.

publive-image An excerpt from the affidavit filed by the Revenue Secretary, Delhi government in 2019 | Courtesy: Special arrangement

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.

publive-image National Green Tribunal (NGT) | Photo Courtesy: The Probe

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 Probe accessed the meetings’ minutes, which indicates that the OC was going through the motions, generating tons of paperwork with no real progress on the ground. The DG, Forests merely ‘expresses displeasure’ at the tardy pace of things, asking officials to hasten things up, and it’s then business as usual till the next round. Moreover, key members of the committee often failed to show up.

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.

publive-image An excerpt from the fifth meeting of the Oversight Committee held on October 3, 2022, exclusively accessed by The Probe | Courtesy: Special arrangement

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.

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

"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.

The minutes also highlighted the other big malaise affecting the whole exercise: alleged encroachers securing judicial stay orders to delay or outrightly deny the forest department’s bid to take over properties falling in forest or gaon sabha land.

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.

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 hectares of land. Again, the DCF (South) and DCF (West) were directed to give a ‘gist of nature and reason for stay orders’ within 15 days. But these directions came to nothing, and such stay cases continue to linger on, clogging the justice system, thwarting the Delhi Forest Department’s exercise and mocking the NGT’s order.

publive-image Many cases of alleged encroachment of forest land pertain to sprawling farmhouses in the tony locality of Sainik Farms which is located bang on the Southern Ridge in Delhi | Photo Courtesy: The Probe

In response to a request by Sonya Ghosh, the Forest Department made available a file listing 54 such cases, pending mainly in Delhi High Court (DHC). As per an analysis of the list by The Probe, many of the cases pertain to rich and influential people owning sprawling properties and bungalows in such tony south Delhi localities as Sainik Farms (located in Neb Sarai, Saidulajab and Devli villages), Asola, Dera Mandi and Bhati.

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.

“Such litigation has effectively scuttled the NGT’s order and ten years of efforts by me and others to save the Delhi ridge. I personally know of a former IPL czar and a famous Punjabi pop singer who got eviction/demolition notices and went on to hire high-flying lawyers to move the Delhi High Court and obtained stay and re-demarcation orders. Such lawyers fail to submit all the relevant facts before the court and don’t approach it with clean hands,” says Ghosh.

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.

publive-image A demolition/eviction notice affixed by the Delhi Forest Department on a property in Sainik Farms | Photo Courtesy: Special arrangement

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.

Ahmad’s case was argued in court by Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal along with Nizamuddin Pasha. When The Probe reached the latter for a comment on his client’s side of the story, he said he could speak only after the next hearing.

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.

publive-image A property in Sainik Farms whose owners obtained a stay order from the Delhi High Court against an eviction/demolition notice issued by the forest department | Photo Courtesy: Special arrangement

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 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 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.

According to a source in the Delhi Forest Department’s field unit located in the Hauz Rani City Forest, next to Sainik Farms, although the stipulated period of three months had expired, neither had any re-demarcation done nor has the department moved ahead to reclaim the property. “Such applications for re-demarcation are often just a paper formality which never gets 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,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

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 The Probe reached Mandeep Mittal, Deputy Conservator of Forests (South), for comments, he parried the allegations of corruption and collusion. When asked why so many stay cases are pending pertaining to the area in his jurisdiction, despite the instructions from the DG, Forests, 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”.

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.”

On the allegations of 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.”

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.