Removing poor people from their homes in the name of environmental protection pushes generations of their families towards destitution. We know this well from what is happening with adivasis of India who live in forest areas in urban or rural regions. The Forest Rights Act was introduced to correct this historical injustice. But the implementation of this law suffers from the same prejudices of elite conservation models and is repeatedly being used to keep forest dwellers from claiming their rights to forests. The Supreme Court in 2019 in a case challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act ordered the eviction of more than 10 lakh forest dwellers on the basis of “rejected claims”. Fortunately, this order was withdrawn within a month when it was pointed out to the Court that it may have been misinformed.
The migrants who come to cities for work are often from minority communities. They are landless peasants and SC/STs who have nothing left in their villages due to aggressive land acquisition for development projects, mining, creation of Protected Areas and other social inequalities of land ownership and caste oppression. And they lose their very identity and certain protections when they leave their states or regions such as areas declared under Schedule V and VI of the Constitution. But the city never seems to accept them enough to provide them dignified housing.
Forest land and PLPA
Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA) is a colonial law for regulating land use for environmental protection especially soil and water conservation. In 1992, this area on which Khori Gaon now stands was notified as regulated under PLPA. Usually these notifications are for a specified period of time, but following the MC Mehta case in the Supreme Court, between the 1990s and 2004, the Supreme Court banned mining in the Aravallis and gave the Aravallis an additional layer of legal protection through a series of orders. By these orders, areas notified under Section 4 of PLPA are “deemed forests” and the forest laws of IFA are applicable. If construction activities are to be undertaken, they have to be done after permissions under the FCA.
Apparently, this is the root cause of the problem. In 2005, the Forest Department issued notices to evict Khori Gaon residents on the pretext that this is forest land. Since then, Khori people have been called “forest encroachers”. This tag has been selectively applied to them with no historical context of this process by which these areas were recognised as forest land and they have as a consequence suffered such institutional hostility from the highest Court of law and from the government of a state that has the worst forest cover in the country.
The state’s failures in regulating land use on PLPA areas are self-evident. In a June 2020 report submitted by the Haryana Forest Department to the National Green Tribunal in the long running case, numerous cases of construction violations on PLPA lands have been identified and these cover an area of 1426.5 acres. In Faridabad alone, there are 123. Although the Forest Department claims to have issued notices from time to time to select developments in this list, it has had little success in dealing with forest encroachments overall.
This is mainly because there are major violations on village common lands and many of these have been privatised and now co-owned by several people. The violations may be done by one of the members of the co-ownership who are also elite residents of the NCR region. A good example of this is the Kant Enclave case in the area neighbouring Khori Gaon.
Managing government land under PLPA restrictions is just as challenging. Although the Development Plans of the Faridabad Municipal Corporation indicate that land use is highly restricted in PLPA areas, several high-end commercial establishments like resort hotels and tourist facilities are in the neighbourhood of Khori Gaon. These buildings are also listed in the forest department’s report to the NGT. But they don’t seem to be threatened with eviction and demolition orders.
But in the Khori Gaon cases, the government seems to claim that this densely packed human settlement on only about 120 acres of land is essential for forest conservation in the state. The human cost of reclaiming this forest land will be the highest in the Aravalli. Broad estimates show that this will lead to the displacement of 600 people per acre and the loss of primary residences of poor people. If the more than a hundred farmhouses in the Aravalli forest areas running commercial or religious enterprises in villages like Mewla Maharajpur, Ankhir and Anangpur are relocated, the human cost per acre of reclaiming Aravalli forests in these areas will be negligible. Surely some prioritisation has to be done for reclaiming forest land in the state?
Actually it does not seem that this entire process is being undertaken keeping forest protection in mind. After the Kant enclave judgment of 2018, the state government attempted to amend the clauses of the PLPA law itself in order to make large scale construction possible on these lands. These amendments were stayed by the Supreme Court. Also there has been no action on the scores of farmhouses and other illegal constructions built on PLPA land. These constructions were given official electricity connections by the state government.
High Court and Supreme Court orders
The legal challenges in courts by the Khori Gaon residents began in 2010 when the first eviction was ordered. The residents of Khori Goan challenged the eviction orders in the Punjab and Haryana High Court through a number of petitions.
In April 2016, the HC made very important observations. One order referred to the actions of the state authorities with respect to their eviction notices as “perverse and cryptic”.
The High Court judgment of 29.4.2016 spoke of the needs of poor migrant workers in our cities. And we have seen how this issue played out during the pandemic lockdown. The HC instructed the Haryana Urban Development Authority to conduct a detailed survey of those eligible for rehabilitation. At the same time, the central government was asked to prepare a nationwide right to housing policy. However, these directions were sidelined.
The Municipal Corporation instead filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. On 19 February 2020 and 5 April 2021, the Supreme Court ordered the removal of the settlement through multiple orders.. In its order of June 7, 2021 the court stated that they “expect that the Corporation will take all essential measures to remove encroachments on the subject forest land without any exception, not later than six weeks from today and submit a compliance report in that behalf…” “The state in general and the local police in particular shall give necessary and logistical support to enable the corporation to implement the directions given by us to evict the occupants/encroachers including by forcible eviction…”
Hearing the petitions seeking a stay on the demolition after that order, the Supreme Court stated in its order of 17th June 2021 that, “..this court has already recorded the assurance given by the Corporation that action against unauthorised structures…will be taken by following due process and in accordance with law…”
Using these orders, the state agencies of Haryana have taken steps that are in direct violation of the COVID-19 Guidance Note announced by the United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur, Leilani Farha, in April 2020. It states that “[h]ousing has become the frontline defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation…States must take the following urgent measures, in keeping with their human rights obligations: Declare an end to all forced evictions of informal settlements and encampments…Ensure all residents of informal settlements/encampments have access to an adequate, affordable and proximate supply of water, toilets, showers, sanitation services, soap, hand sanitiser, disinfectants, and masks. In communities with limited access to local water supply, water tankers and equipment to create boreholes must be urgently provided…”
The state’s constant insistence on the removal of Khori Gaon on forest land but turning a blind eye to the high-end developments beside it highlights the discriminatory claims made by the state on forest conservation. Khori Gaon is not the only settlement on forest land in this area as per the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1990 . To its east are the commercial and hospitality developments (refer to map 1 in Annexure). Along the Suraj Kund Badhkal road, there are at least 35 farmhouses and hotels on forest land (refer to map 2 in Annexure).
There is also an unauthorised colony Chungi 1, 2, and 3 in Lal Kuan, that falls in Delhi. In Chungi’s case, since the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board ’s cut off date is 2015 for rehabilitation or compensation, the residents were not uprooted from their habitat. However, Haryana Urban Development Authority ’s cut off date is 2003 renders most of the residents ineligible. Lawyers representing the Khori residents have repeatedly asked the Haryana government to ensure proper steps are taken and a detailed survey is conducted before the eviction. They have also requested amendments to the cut off date to 2020. However, since the court has left the issue of rehabilitation to the Haryana government, the state government has ignored this requirement.
Based on the earlier sections, the chronology of the events are as follows –
- The history shows that the destruction of the ridge had begun long ago in the 1950s when quarrying had started.
- The Forest Conservation Act came into force in 1980 whereas, the settlement has started developing in the 1970s.
- The notification of PLPA land in the area took place in 1992
- The declaration of the deemed forest status happened in 2004
- The hotels, commercial complex and religious centre beside Khori Gaon developed between 2000 to 2014. Pinnacle Business Tower and Radha Swami Satsang centre started their construction after the declaration of forest in 2005.
- As per the forest department’s submission to NGT on 18.6.2020, there are 123 violations of PLPA land in Faridabad district.
[Note: This writeup appears as the chapter titled Legal Background in the Public Hearing Report – Link]