'Forest' land for tribals: AG's caution

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, DEC. 30. The State Government is in receipt of legal opinion against proceeding with the assignment of forest land to tribals at the function being organised at Marayur, in Idukki district, on Tuesday.

The Advocate General, Mr. M. Ratna Singh, whose opinion was sought by the Government in the context of the controversy relating to the Marayur function, is understood to have told the Government in unambiguous terms that it will be a gross act of illegality if the land assignment exercise is conducted the way it is being planned.

After going through the various legislations relating to forest conservation, he said that ``to be on the safer side, I am of the opinion that the land (earmarked for assignment to the tribals at the Marayur function) is forest land''.

He added that the assignment of such land (for individual possession) could be done only with the prior approval of the Central Government, (which had not been done by the State Government).

He also cautioned the Government against acting otherwise since it would ``unduly expose even the Government officials to punishment as per Section 3 (b) of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980''.

In his report to the Government, Mr. Ratna Singh is learnt to have said that he had gone through the Madras Preservation of Private Forest Act, Kerala Preservation of Private Forest Act, Kerala Forest Act, Kerala Private Forest (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971, and also the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and various other decisions of the Supreme Court of India.

He also noted that the Supreme Court, in the case of T.L. Godavarma Tirumulpad vs. Union of India and Others, had taken the view that the word `forest' should be taken in its dictionary meaning whether notified as `reserved', `protected', or otherwise, for the purpose of the Forest Conservation Act.

``Considering all these aspects, I also understand that the land mentioned in this case appears to be forest and there is no evidence to show otherwise.

In these circumstances, I feel it is more advisable and safe to proceed on the footing that they are forest lands,'' Mr. Ratna Singh said.

He went on to caution the Government that assignment of land without the consent of the Central Government would invite the punitive provisions of the Forest Conservation Act. Quoting the relevant provisions, he said the officials directly involved in the offence, as well as those holding responsibility as the authority in charge, would be liable to be proceeded against and punished.

In the light of this legal opinion, it is not known how the Government proposes to conduct the land assignment exercise at Marayur.

According to dependable sources, those involved in identifying and earmarking land for distribution among tribals in this area had laid their hands on forest lands not because assignable non-forest lands are not available in nearby areas.

According to them, there has been a conscious effort to avoid touching high-value revenue properties in nearby Munnar, on which the moneyed and the powerful are definitely interested.

Another factor also appears to have emboldened the authorities to flout the stringent provisions of the Forest Conservation Act. They did not expect even the conservationists to come out against the exercise for fear of being dubbed anti- tribal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nalla Thampi, tribal activist, today said the land earmarked for assignment among the tribals in Marayur and Kundala was totally uninhabitable.

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