By Medha Patkar and Bilal Khan*
The Mangrove Cell of Maharashtra Forest Department was formed in the year 2012 with an objective to conserve and replenish the mangroves in the state of Maharashtra. This was a welcoming step taken by the Maharashtra Government; however, the few actions being taken by the Cell to realize its objectives are arbitrary and disappointing. The Cell is following an order of the Bombay High Court as the basis to target slums near mangrove areas. After clearing all these slums, the Mangrove Cell comes up with fancy headlines in the newspapers crediting itself for the increase in the mangrove cover in the state.
Unfortunately, the Cell forgets to acknowledge the atrocities committed against all those citizens including the women and children, whose houses it demolishes. It is destroying decade old shanties without giving any thought to the fact that their action would render thousands of people homeless and severely affect their livelihoods. It is much more objectionable and unacceptable that the Cell does not even spare those slum dwellers that are currently protected by the law and have a claim on that land.
The Bombay High Court, on 6th October, 2005 passed an order in the PIL filed by the Bombay Environment and Action Group, an NGO, that all mangrove areas and the land within a distance of 50 meters from the mangrove areas be declared as ‘protected forests’ (Govt. lands) and ‘forests’ (private lands). The Court also directed the government to immediately stop all construction and development activities taking place on all such land. The order was to come to effect immediately after its issuance, which means that all the structures standing on such land after the issuance of the order are illegal.
However, the Mangrove Cell is targeting even those slum dwellers that are protected by the cut-off-date of 1.1.2000 set by the Maharashtra Government Resolution dated 2nd July, 2014. This means that the Cell is trying to demolish all those shanties which came into being more than five years prior to the issuance of the order, which is not what the Hon. High Court directed the state to do.
The Court had ordered that all the mangrove areas be declared as ‘protected forests’ and ‘forests’ under law, however, it may be possible that in order to implement the order effectively, the state government decided to declare such lands as ‘reserved forests’ instead of ‘protected forests’. In case of ‘protected forests’, as per Indian Forest Act, 1927, such land can have that status for a maximum period of 30 years and certain amount of human interference can be allowed but in case of the ‘reserved forests’, such provisions are unavailable.
In other words, in case of ‘protected forests’, every activity except those specifically prohibited, is permitted, while for ‘reserved forests’, every activity except those that are permitted, are prohibited. But before declaring any land as ‘reserved forests’, it is the duty of the Forest Settlement Officer to settle the rights of the people who have been occupying that land which is to be so declared. Ensuring the prima facie legality of the rights claimed by the occupants of that land, the Forest Settlement Officer can exempt that part of the land on which the rights are claimed, from being declared as ‘reserved forests’ and take over the rest of the land as per the Land Acquisition Act.
Without letting the Forest Settlement Officer exercise his power, the Mangrove Cell is hell bent on evicting the people on land notified as ‘reserved forests’. This hasty action of demolishing the slums by the Mangrove Cell is depriving people of their housing rights, while the people could claim their right on that land before the Forest Settlement Officer if the procedure under law was followed.
We had trusted the Chief of the Mangrove Cell in one case of slum demolition at Malvani no. 8, Malad, Mumbai, where he said that he would not let those shanties which were in existence prior to the issuance of the order be demolished. The Chief is relying on the maps prepared through a satellite study by the Maharashtra Remote Sensing Application Center, specifying mangrove areas in the year 2005. However, when his staff had come down to demolish the shanties in the notified regions as specified in the maps; they evicted the whole slum at Malvani.
An official, who was asked about this wrongful act, had shamefully admitted that once in action, they cannot distinguish between the old and the new houses or those lying perfectly on the boundaries of the forest and outside. This indicates that they are also incapable of locating the notified regions on the ground from the maps. So when there is a high risk of peoples’ housing rights being affected by this action, why is the Cell not allowing the Forest Settlement Officer to exercise his power, which would ascertain the legal and illegal occupants of land before the Mangrove Cell takes any action against the unjust encroachments? It shows the political expediency and the callous attitude of the Cell towards the poor toiling masses and their rights.
The inappropriate action taken by the Mangrove Cell has been pointed out to the Chief of the Cell himself, the Collector, Mumbai Suburban District, the Nayab Tehsildar of the Divisional Commissioner Office, Konkan Bhavan and the Sub Divisional Officer of the Eastern Suburban, Mumbai who is a Forest Settlement Officer of this region. However, little cognizance has been taken so far and because of no proper communication among these authorities, the Mangrove Cell freely taking actions. Several thousand slum dwellers are still under threat of eviction but the exact numbers are still unknown as the Cell is not revealing those.
Around 2500 shanties have been demolished in Navi Mumbai as was reported in the Indian Express on 5th December, 2015: 36-sq-km growth in mangrove cover in 2 years: FSI report. 600 homes demolished in Malvani, Malad in June 2015. More slums in Kannamwar Nagar, Cheetah Camp, Colaba are under threat of eviction. There could be several other such instances near the mangrove areas. The Cell is unable to put forth all the facts and its plans which also indicate its biases and flaws.
On the other hand, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan had submitted a report to the Collector, Mumbai Suburban District, who is the chairman of the District Coastal Zone Monitoring Committee, specifying several structures which have come up on the mangrove areas after the issuance of the Court’s order. On questioning the Cell on such a discrepancy and discrimination, as also enquiring about any action against elite structures over the past ten years, there is almost no response. No information is received about the action taken against non-slum structures as gross encroachments even after six months of submission of the report!
These actions by the state government clearly expose its callous and biased attitude towards the poor. On one hand the Government is showering chunks of land to celebrities and for cow shelters but on the other hand it considers the poor of the city too insignificant to get any land for housing, neglecting and disrespecting their valuable contribution to the life and services to the city and its economy. Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan will continue its struggle for the housing right of the urban poor in Mumbai and against the anti-people approach and structured discrimination by the State.
*National Alliance of People’s Movements