HYDERABAD: Sindh forest department is transferring officers apparently in contravention of relevant order of the Sindh High Court (Sukkur bench) which restrains posting and transfers in the department till completion of operation for removal of encroachment from forest land and its retrieval.

The provincial services and general administration (S&GA) department is said to have sent a note on Sept 16 to the forest secretary seeking clarification in light of the SHC’s April 14, 2021 order.

The department seeks to know whether certain postings hit para-10 of the SHC order.

The order had restrained the chief secretary and forest secretary from transferring “any” conservator, divisional forest officer, district forest officer and forest officer in the province till the completion of the ongoing operation for removal of encroachments from forest lands and their retrieval.

Forest department sources said that forest secretary Dr Badar Jamil Mandhro wanted legal opinion from the advocate general (AG), Sindh, in this regard in response to the Sept 16 communication. But the notifications for transfers of several officers have, however, not been recalled.

Dr Jamil defended the transfers, arguing that the officers concerned were not complying with SHC’s order pertaining to the retrieval of forest land. “Rather, they were [found] involved in encroachment and were facilitating occupation of forest land and also showing misconduct.”

These officers, he said, would be issued show-cause notices soon and such report would be submitted in court. He said the chief conservator was transferred by Sindh government, and even otherwise, this post was not mentioned in the April 14 order as far as restraining directive was concerned.

The forest secretary said that the officers/officials failed in putting an end to encroachment.

Advocate Qazi Athar is intervener in the case that is being heard by the high court’s Sukkur bench. His application for becoming intervener was allowed on Sept 8 and he has been appearing in person in the hearings. “The recent transfers are in violation of high court’s April 14 order. These officers are transferred because they are not in good books of forest officers. I will serve a legal notice on forest department if these notifications [for transfers] are not withdrawn as violative of the April 14 order,” he said.

The forest department has been retrieving forest land and removing encroachment existing on it in the shape of standing crops under the direct supervision of high court’s Sukkur bench for several months. Detailed reports on the operation are being submitted in court. The previous hearing was held on Sept 8 when AG Sindh Salman Talibuddin appeared before the bench to argue on the April 28, 2020 order, staying implementation on Sindh Sustainable Forest Management Policy 2019.

Qazi Ather said that the AG Sindh did not file a written statement while questioning jurisdiction of the high court. “AG told court it is exceeding jurisdiction and taking suo motu notice but the bench told him whatever he [AG Sindh] intends to submit, he should do it in writing instead of arguing verbally,” Qazi said.

Forest department sources said that some officers were of active consideration that SHC should vacate the stay on implementation of 2019 policy so that agriculture activity could be started. Portfolio of the department has now been handed over to Nawab Taimur Talpur. “The minister is being persuaded by such officers that even if court doesn’t vacate stay over policy he [minister] should allow agriculture activity on forest land without issuing any permission. But the minster has not agreed to it,” confided a source.

Earlier, the cabinet portfolio was held by Syed Nasir Hussain Shah. Forest department sources said that anti-encroachment drive has lately stopped.

Forest department had informed the Sukkur bench that 33,924 acres of land remained under encroachment in the shape of standing crops including cotton, onion, maize, sugar cane, banana, rice etc. These crops were cultivated in Thatta, Sujawal, Hyderabad, Jamshoro, Matiari, Dadu, Shaheed Benazirabad, Sukkur, Khairpur, Mirpur Mathelo, Larkana, Shikarpur and Kandhkot.

Sugar cane — a high-delta crop — has the largest acreage of land brought illegally under cultivation. Its acreage is reported at 3,964.96 acres as per forest department information followed by 3,303.00 acres of onion. Rice, another water-guzzling crop, is grown on 1,109 acres and banana on 1,891 acres.

On successive hearings in the previous months forest officers had informed court that 247,000 acres of forest land had been under illegal encroachment. The department also considers lands under encroachment which were brought under cultivation in the light of the Agro-forest Policy of 2005 during Musharraf regime.

Supreme Court and later SHC’s Sukkur bench had expressed concern over use of forest lands for agriculture purposes. SHC Sukkur bench had even stayed “Sindh Sustainable Forest Management Policy 2019” — approved by Sindh cabinet in Nov 2019 — on April 28, 2021 on the ground that it was in conflict with Forest Act 1927.

Forest department has 1,074,941.18 acres of riverine and irrigated forests as per statement submitted before the Sukkur bench last month. For the first time that forest land, thanks to judicial oversight, is being mutated in BoR’s record of rights.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2021



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