Influential encroachers make windfall profits as forest cover disappears in riverine area

Published April 19, 2021
Lifting water from Indus, free of cost, or using groundwater to cultivate the land they have encroached upon, these influential land grabbers literally mint money through forest land.  —AFP/File
Lifting water from Indus, free of cost, or using groundwater to cultivate the land they have encroached upon, these influential land grabbers literally mint money through forest land. —AFP/File

MATIARI: A herd of cattle is lazily grazing vegetation on a pasture dotted with small ponds and pools of sparkling greenish blue water and encircled with different trees in a hamlet in the riverine area of Indus in Hala, Matiari district.

The picturesque landscape used to be hallmark of every temporary human settlement in the riverine area since time immemorial but it has not been so anymore as this natural beauty is fast giving way to large tracts of land cleared of trees and tamed for plantation.

Now one can see large swathes of tree-less fields of wheat and different vegetables on land — originally meant for forest and reserved for forestation —, grown by influential encroachers or their front-men.

This blatant occupation of forest land, which has become a norm in Sindh for decades, has finally drawn attention of judiciary, forcing the forest department to be proactive in retrieving its land from the clutches of the encroachers, who are not conventional land grabbers but white collar men — senior government functionaries, police officers and bureaucrats and present and former provincial ministers in successive governments.

Lifting water from Indus, free of cost, or using groundwater to cultivate the land they have encroached upon, these influential land grabbers literally mint money through forest land.

The encroachers themselves or their front-men cultivate cash crops like wheat, cotton, fruits, pulses, vegetables and even sugar cane, a high delta crop, on this highly fertile land, earning windfall profits with meager investment.

“Crops grown inside the riverine area usually need less water as groundwater in aquifer abounds. But crops’ cultivation is not recommended in the riverine area as it threatens dykes of the Indus because the famers raise private bunds around land which blocks the river’s course to the detriment of dykes,” said Zahid Junejo, Sindh’s member on the Indus River System Authority.

Forest department officials share names of sitting parliamentarians and senior police functionaries, politicians etc who have been enjoying ‘occupation’ of forest land of irrigated plantation (the area which is fed by canal water for growing forest) and inside the riverine area under 2004-05 Agro-Forestry Lease policy introduced during Arbab Rahim government and extended until 2010.

The policy has encouraged crops cultivation but done little to grow forests.

Cultivation of crops inside the riverine area is a boon given rich soil fertility which gets silt deposits in floods. 0.4m to 0.5m cusec of flood usually inundates the riverine area or start touching dykes of the river depending on width of riverbed between Guddu downstream to Kotri barrages downstream.

Under the policy, forest land was doled out among high and mighty of various hues. Nobody knows whether the forest department was able to even recover full lease money against leased out land.

“Inclusion of ‘agriculture’ in 2004-05 policy was in fact a charm. Forest Act 1927 is clear and doesn’t permit agriculture on forest land. It talks about forest produce,” said Ather Qazi, an advocate handles forest related cases.

Nasir Ali Panhwar, an environmentalist, said the policy was used to destroy forests. “Successive governments contributed to this manmade disaster in forests in addition to inadequate river flows,” he said.

Sindh cabinet approved “Sindh Sust­ainable Forest Management Policy 2019” in November 2019 but it too inclined towards agriculture while talking about mandatory forest growth with various adaptation models by ‘private partners’ under one to five years forest development plan.

This policy didn’t get many backers in forest department though parliamentarians were ‘comfortable’ with it. The policy was framed by Aijaz Nizamani, sitting chief conservator, who strongly defends it and says it can help achieve desired forestation in Sindh but complains his viewpoint is not being taken in right perspective within and outside the department.

Entire hierarchy — all conservators and chief conservators — oppose 2019 policy on plea that creating a room for agriculture will never help grow forests and it was evident from 15 years of experience.

“There is a synergy between agriculture and forests. People need to understand it. Acacia’s seeds easily germinate if there is some cover of cotton plant. We need to have partners to own land and to have billions of rupees income. Forest land in vacuum will encourage other forces to interfere. Or the government should keep releasing money for growing forests,” argued Nizamani.

Even precious irrigated plantation land off National Highway on hundreds of acres in Hyderabad district alone have been used for crops’ cultivation otherwise, forest officials genuinely fear, the very land might have been used for raising housing scheme. But all this has come to an end thanks to recent judicial intervention.

Chief Conservator Dr Abdul Jabbar Qazi disagrees with Nizamani like many others. He says the new policy is no different from the old one. “It has been proved since 2005 that forestation can’t get along with agriculture,” he says. “Why insistence on mixing forests with agriculture?” contends Qazi.

SHC Sukkur bench stayed 2019 policy last year, repeatedly issued directives to government and chief conservators to ensure forest land was not leased out for agriculture purpose. The court also wanted forest land to be free of all occupation across Sindh.

The forest department has 1,074,941.18acres of riverine and irrigated forests (subject to ongoing reconciliation between BoR and forest department) as per statement submitted to Sindh High Court’s Sukkur bench last month. For the first time that forest land, thanks to judicial oversight, is being mutated in BoR’s record of rights.

A total of 959,756,.54 acres have been mutated as per BoR figures and 109,797.99acres await mutation in foretst department’s name. Forest department is currently cancelling illegal allotments of its land.

But the real problem is determination of actual number of acreage on forest land under encroachment. In one document, the forest department claimed in June 2020 that 108,460 acres were under encroachment of varying natures. In March 2021, the SHC Sukkur bench was informed by BoR that 247,103 acres was under encroachment out of which 191,313 acres had been retrieved.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2021

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