ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court has ordered the Sindh government to retrieve all encroached land in the province, ensure immediate cancellation of all illegal allotments of forest land and take over their possession.
“No delinquency in this regard shall be tolerated and the chief conservator shall ensure compliance of the court’s orders,” said an order dictated by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed on Wednesday.
The chief justice was heading a three-judge Supreme Court bench, which included Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan and Justice Sajjad Ali Shah.
The order came on a petition moved by Qazi Ali Athar, an environment attorney, seeking an order to restrain the Sindh government from introducing any scheme in the province’s forests for housing schemes, townships, land distribution, land reforms or other schemes or policies which amounted to deforestation or land possession.
The Supreme Court also ordered the Chief Conservator of Forests, Aijaz Nizamani, to seek assistance from the chief secretary for implementation and compliance of the court’s directive.
If and when such assistance is requested, the apex court said, the chief secretary would ensure that it was provided adequately and without delay.
The court also sought a comprehensive report, to be furnished by the chief conservator, along with the GIS (Geographic Information System) imaginary report, identifying forest lands of the entire province on the next date of hearing.
Sindh’s chief conservator of forests had informed the apex court, during a previous hearing, that out of 2.8 million acres of forest land in the province, 50,000 acres stood encroached upon.
But efforts were being made by the forest department to retrieve the same, the chief conservator said. At the same time he conceded that vast tracts of land had been illegally allotted, putting the blame mainly on the Sindh Revenue Department.
In its order, the court noted that even forest officials appeared to be involved in illegal allotments and occupation of forest land, mostly by individuals in power.
In his petition, Qazi Athar had questioned the departmental action of de-notifying the status of forest cover/land in favour of the Land Utilisation Department, Board of Revenue, in Jan 2012. He had also challenged a 2010 summary prepared by the Sindh chief minister for conversion of the status of “forest” into “revenue land”.
The petition pleaded with the court to declare all forest lands in Sindh — 2,858,748 acres — as a national asset and protected zone. “The forest cover should never be allowed to deplete in any circumstances.”
Qazi Athar prayed for cancellation of all the allotted or leased forest lands and ejection of all land grabbers through an operation.
The petition highlighted a June 19, 2015, decision of the Sindh chief minister to distribute 9,552 acres of land among families of martyred army soldiers on an ownership basis. The chief minister had issued directives to the chief secretary, as well as the forest department, to move a summary for approval of the chief minister for changing the status of forest in Shikarpur district and other areas.
The petition alleged that the Nasri forest of Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah) district was granted to Bahria Town for the development of their third mega project in Nawabshah.
In Karachi, thousands of acres of Kathore Reserve Forests and green belts were allotted to Bahria Town, the petition recalled. This countrywide grabbing of forest lands was of a piece with their previous practice regarding the statutory protected forests of Rawalpindi and Lahore.
The petitioner pleaded for constitution of a judicial commission to probe the organised deforestation or degradation of forests and for the formation of a national forest commission on a permanent basis under the Ministry of Climate Change.
He drew the court’s attention to depletion of mangrove forests along the coast in Karachi, Badin and Thatta.
Qazi Athar had contended that the conversion of statutory protected forests and natural forests help check carbon emissions.
He prayed to the court to order the Sindh government to cancel the Sindh Agro-Forestry Policy of 2004 so that a comprehensive forest rehabilitation and protection programme could be thrashed out in consultation with all stakeholders.
The apex court should direct the provincial government, the petitioner urged, to conduct GIS mapping of total forest cover of Sindh or through satellite conservation purposes on a quarterly basis.
The forest and wildlife department should be ordered to demarcate or carry out digital mapping of forest land under the supervision of a district and sessions judge, Qazi Athar said.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2020