Armed with Supreme Court judgment, villagers can get common lands vacated
In 1996, the Supreme Court passed a landmark order on forest: expanding the definition of forest from areas declared as forest in government records to an all encompassing term which includes all areas which satisfy the dictionary meaning of forest. The court directed that in all areas which are forests, irrespective of ownership and classification, no forest land can be diverted for ‘non forest purposes’ without the prior approval of the central government.
The case titled as T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs Union of India triggered series of action across the country. The forest departments got a new lease of life, as well as added responsibility. However, what was significant was the role of NGOs, concerned individuals in using the Godavarman judgment in protecting areas of vital ecological importance. Thus, a retired Range officer fought and succeeded in stopping the Kudremukh Iron ore Company from destroying the Western Ghats, while NGOs in Mumbai succeeded in sending the Forest Minister and additional Chief Secretary to Jail for one month for allowing saw mills to operate in violation of law. Even after a decade and a half the Godavarman case continues to be heard on a weekly basis by the Supreme Court and continues to spring surprise: the action against mining in Bellary by the ‘Reddy Brothers’ is the most recent court’s action.
In January 2011, the Supreme Court passed an order which had the potential to be as important (if not more) than the Godavarman judgment. This relates to the Supreme Court’ judgment in Jagpal Singh Vs Union of India where the Supreme Court observed the need to protect ‘common lands’ across the country, whether in the form of ponds, grazing grounds, Ramlila grounds, graveyards etc.
The Supreme Court directed for speedy eviction of all encroachments and stated that long years of occupation and investments made should not be the reason for regularization of encroachment of common land.
According to the Court, these areas were meant for common use by the village community at large and could not be used for commercial purposes, but unfortunately, a combination of ‘muscle power, political power and money power’ has led to the usurpation of this common land by private vested interests. The Court directed for speedy eviction of all encroachments and stated that long years of occupation and investments made should not be the reason for regularization of encroachment of common land. In view of the importance of the issue, the Supreme Court following the Godavarman model decided to monitor the implementation of the order.
It is surprising that unlike the Supreme Court order on Forest, the order with respect to common land is largely unknown and very limited initiative has been taken by concerned groups including NGOs (barring few), in ensuring that the order is implemented in letter and spirit. Jagpal Singh’s judgement offers immense scope in protecting not only the common land, but also the lives and livelihood of people who depend on common land. Over the last few years, some of the most intense environmental struggles have been over common lands. The struggle to save the wetlands of Naupada and Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh from the thermal power plants, to protection of riverine islands in Assam from the dams in Arunachal Pradesh have all centred on the need to protect the common lands. Unfortunately, in most of the battles, the local communities have been unaware of the ruling of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s order on Common Land in Jagpal Singh’s case has as much, if not much wider scope than its orders on Forest Conservation. However, it is for communities and Civil Society Organisations to work together to get it implemented, since neither the State nor the Corporate sector can be expected to be its champion.
Only time will tell whether Jagpal judgment turns into another Godavarman! Now it’s up to Civil Society how it grabs the opportunity to make it into another historic judgment and expands its implementation and impact. Little initiatives can save our precious common lands.