Forest Department rejects EGI's fact-finding report
Source: Chronicle News Service

Imphal, September 08 2023: Taking serious note of the fact-finding report published by a three-member team of Editors' Guild of India (EGI) regarding the ongoing crisis in the state, the state forest department has issued a clarification and sets record straight while rejecting the report as false.

In the clarification, the principal chief conservator of forest and head of forest force SS Chhabra said that the forest department finds all the reports on page no.3 and photograph on page no.5 which relate to the department are false, concocted, and without any basis.

The fact-finding committee has neither consulted the department nor cross-checked the authenticity of the report and photograph before the same is published in the public domain.

In the absence of a clarification, the report will lead to misinformation to the public and authorities and also tarnish the reputation of the department, the seven-page clarification stated.

In response to a claim of EGI regarding declaration of reserved and protected forest and wetlands without following proper procedure as laid down in the Hill Area Committee Act of 1972, further leading to cancellation of land ownership documents and a drive to evict them, the clarification stated "No reserved forest or protected forest has been declared during the tenure of the Biren government".

There are 37 reserved forests and 23 protected forests in the state.

Out of 37 reserved forests, 21 reserved forests were notified by the Manipur State Darbar from August 4, 1913 to August 7, 1946 and one by the State Council on April 22, 1948, eight by the chief commissioner from August 1, 1951 to September 13,1971 and the remaining seven by the state government from February 2, 1972 to January 1, 1990.Heingang reserved forest in Imphal East notified by the Manipur State Darbar vide Resolution No 432 dt 4.8.1913 is the first reserved forest.

Nongmaiching reserved forest in Imphal East for which initial notification under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was issued vide notification dated 16.02.1966, and final notification under Section 20 was issued vide notification No 66/l/75-For dt 4.1.1990 and Manipur Gazette No 41 dated 17.01.1990 is the last reserved forest in the state.

Out of the 23 protected forests, 17 protected forests were notified by the chief commissioner from November 21, 1951 to January 17, 1970 and the remaining six PFs were notified by the state government on June 18,1979 under Section 29 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927.The total areas of the RFs and PFs are 984 Sq Km and 4,171 Sq Km respectively, which account for only about 4.4 per cent and 18.6 per cent of the geographical area of the state.

The, total area of RF and PF of the state is only 23 per cent of the geographical area.

No reserved forest has been notified after January 4, 1990 and no protected forest has been notified after June 18,1979.Therefore, the EGI's report that the N Biren government, which was formed in 2017 and then in 2022 declared parts of Hills as "reserved" and "protected" forests and all land ownership documents within these areas were cancelled is completely false, and without any basis.

Regarding the claim of EGI about violent confrontation between state authorities and Kuki-Zo community and subsequent claim of the demolition drive beginning from Kangpokpi district and extending to Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts, the department clarifies that there is no basis of the EGI report since no reserved forest or protected forest was notified during the tenure of Biren government.

It further stated that the department has been taking up eviction drives of illegal encroachers from reserved forests and protected forests following due procedures as provided in the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Manipur Forest Rules 1971 (repealed by Manipur Forest Rules, 2021).Eviction is a continuous process as the protection of forests and wildlife of the state is the mandated constitutional duty of the department.

From October, 2015 to April, 2023 alone, forest department evicted 413 encroachers from various reserved forests and protected forests in the state.

Community-wise, the number of encroachers evicted is 143 Meetei, 137 Meetei Pangal, 59 Kuki (including 21 unoccupied huts in Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi reserved forest), 38 Naga and 36 Nepali.

Eviction of illegal encroachers in reserved forests and protected forests is a continuous process and therefore the question of initiating the eviction in Kangpokpi district does not arise.

Since 2015 till date no encroacher has been evicted from the reserved forests and protected forests in Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts.

Therefore, the report of EGI that the demolition drive began in Kangpokpi district, and extended by February 2023 to Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts is manufactured and without any basis, it stated.

The first eviction drive during the period began from Imphal West district in October, 2015 and it reached Kangpokpi in November-December, 2022.In response to the EGI report that says, "the forest surveys, inquiries, evictions, and demolitions were carried out only in the non-Naga inhabited tribal areas, once again leading the Kuki community to believe that it was being singled out (EGI Report on Page No 3)", the department clarified that eviction of encroachers from the reserved forests and protected forests was not only in non-Naga inhabited areas.

The eviction drive of the department is not against any community.

Encroachers, irrespective of community, against whom no court case or any other case is pending are evicted as per the Acts and Rules.

Out of the 413 encroachers evicted from October, 2015 to April, 2023, only 59 encroachers are from Kuki community which also includes 21 unoccupied huts constructed inside the Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi reserved forest and the remaining are Meetei, Meitei Pangal, Naga and Nepali.

The state government, in 2019-20, took serious cognizance of rapid deforestation and degradation of forests in the state and its resultant effects.

There has been a rapid loss of forest cover, especially in some hill areas of Manipur due to ever-increasing areas under illegal poppy cultivation and accompanying forest fires in the forest areas.

It is a fact that as per the India State of Forest Reports (ISFR) published biannually by the Forest Survey of India, Government of India, the state of Manipur has lost 491.73 Sq Km (49,173 Ha) forest cover during the last decade from 2011 to 2021, out of which 395.96 Sq km was in Churachandpur district only, which means 80.5 per cent of forest cover loss took place in Churachandpur district alone.

The state government also came across issues of overlapping land records between the revenue department and the forest department, and documents issued by some departments or individuals without authority and in gross violation of the provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and rules framed thereunder as well as Supreme Court Orders in WP(C) No 202 of 1995.Acknowledging these issues, the state government felt the urgency and importance of reconciling and consolidating the boundaries of reserved forests and protected forests in the state and restoring healthy vegetation in these forest areas by planting tree saplings and protecting them in the interest of the future of the state.

The state government constituted a State Level Committee (SLC) headed by the chief secretary on April 30, 2020 with senior officers from the line departments as members to look into the matters pertaining to overlapping of records of revenue villages and forest areas, unauthorised documents issued in forest lands among others, and to carry out joint surveys of these areas by using modern equipment and GIS technologies with the objective of consolidating reserved forests and protected forests boundaries.

So far, joint surveys in nine reserved forests and three protected forests have been completed.

These forests lie in Imphal West (2), Imphal East (3), Kangpokpi (2), Noney (1), Bishnupur (2), Thoubal & Tengnoupal (1) and Kamjong (1) districts.

Therefore, the report of EGI that the forest surveys, inquiries, evictions, and demolitions were carried out only in the non-Naga inhabited tribal areas is devoid of any truth, it added.

The department also took strong objection against the EGI report that says, "Simultaneously, a state government committee headed by the chief secretary on April 3, 2023, cancelled all land/property deeds and recognition of villages within the designated reserved and protected forest area.

All this was done without any rehabilitation plan for the evicted tribal population (EGI Report on Page No3)".It clarifies that there is no order or any document of the committee headed by the chief secretary issued on April 3, 2023, that cancelled any land/property deed and recognition of villages within the designated reserved and protected forests area.

As clarified earlier, the committee headed by the chief secretary was constituted on April 30, 2020 to resolve the issues of overlapping areas as per records of the revenue and forest department, unauthorised orders issued in violation of Acts and Rules and finally to consolidate reserved forest and protected forest boundaries.

The committee does not have the authority to cancel land/ property deeds and recognition of villages within the designated reserved and protected forest area.

Therefore, the report of EGI is unfounded, the department said.

Regarding the photo under the caption "Smoke rises from a Kuki house on 5 May", the department clarified that the photograph in question is the photograph of the burning of forest beat office, Mata Mualtam under Churachandpur forest division (Churachandpur district), but not of a Kuki house as reported by EGI.

The forest beat office was burnt down by a violent mob on May 3, 2023 and an FIR No 52(05)2023 CCP-PS under Section 143/147/427/438/34 IPC, 3 of PDPP Act has been lodged with the Churachandpur police station In the violence that is prevailing in the state, 18 forest offices/inspection bungalows/quarters in the Kuki dominated areas have been burnt down along with physical files, documents, maps, furniture, tools, and equipment.

FIRs have been lodged with the respective police stations, the statement said while giving a list of all the burnt forest offices and date of occurrence.

"Therefore, the reports of the EGI's fact-finding mission appearing on pages no 3 and 5 relating to the forest department, Manipur are manufactured, concocted, incorrect, and one-sided without verification from the forest department or any competent authority.

Forest department appeals to EGI and any other organisation to kindly verily and cross-check any information relating to forest and wildlife before they publish any report in the public domain," the statement concluded.

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