Saturday, February 17, 2018

Last Stretch of Punjab Forests Threatened as PLPA Cover Expires

Jayashree Nandi | TNN | January 30, 2018 

NEW DELHI: Forests in about 16 villages in the ecologically rich Shivalik foothills around Chandigarh may be left vulnerable to destruction after February 2, 2018. These villages are currently protected under the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) by way of a notification by the Punjab government dated February 3, 2003 which expires on Feb 2, 2018. The process of re-notifying these areas hasn't started yet.

Even before re-notification is started, the Punjab forest department has started issuing permissions for tree cutting, eco-tourism projects, mixed-use tourism projects, and others in some of the villages (Tarapur, Karoran, Majiran and others) claiming that PLPA will not apply to these villages from February 2. These villages are also recorded as "forests"according to an affidavit submitted by the Punjab government in the TN Godavarman case in SC.

The permission letters given by the forest department on January 22, 2018 accessed by TOI state that these activities can be carried out by those who sought permission after February 2, 2018 once the 2003 notification expires, "no restrictions of the PLPA will be applicable on the expiry of the same (notification) and in compliance of the judgement dated February 2, 2017 in Gram Panchayat Majrian and others Vs union of India passed by the High Court."
The forest department is citing the high court judgement to reason that all areas cannot be considered forests, there are agricultural lands too and the areas cannot be re-notified without a "scientific study." "We are not sure if these areas will be notified again. The high court judgement states that a scientific study should be carried out to indicate the state of soil erosion here. If there is no soil erosion they can be delisted.

After the 2003 notification, any activity can be carried out here. If there is no intermediate regulatory notification what can we do?," asked Harsh Kumar, chief conservator of forests (Hills), Punjab. A special tribunal report constituted by Haryana high court in 2012 headed by Justice Kuldip Singh had also highlighted that these were 'shamlat' common lands there were attempts to change land use by individuals and private parties in many of these villages, some were even illegally privatised.

Environmental experts said if there is no move to re-notify these areas as "forests" immediately, Punjab will lose its little stretch of biodiversity and forests left. "Punjab has the lowest forest cover in the country at 3.52%, it should be trying to protect whatever little it has left. About 95% of that forest cover is located in this region protected by the 2003 notification. These forests protect against soil erosion, act as groundwater recharge sites, a rich wildlife habitat and biodiversity reserves. Beginning with Jammu, to Punjab and up to Uttarakhand it is a contiguous belt which needs to be conserved,"said Chetan Agarwal, an environmental analyst, adding that "Punjab government had shown these villages as recorded forests in the Godavarman case in SC. How can they be removed now?"

Punjab forest department officials said there were no talks of re-notification, some studies of soil erosion status had been carried in a few villages but not all. The permission letters issued by the forest department are also silent on the applicability of the Forest Conservation Act to these forests.

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