Declare unencroached forest land as reserved or face contempt: Delhi HC to chief secretary

The Delhi High Court Wednesday warned the city government’s chief secretary of contempt action if he did not designate unencroached forest areas in the national capital as “reserved forest” within two weeks.

Justice Jasmeet Singh said the official was liable for contempt of court for not following a 2021 National Green Tribunal (NGT) order directing the Delhi government through the chief secretary to ensure that requisite notification under Section 20 (Notification declaring forest reserved) of the Indian Forest Act is issued in three months in relation to forest land having “no controversy”.

“Even till date, the said notification has not been issued. I am of the view that the Chief Secretary is in contempt of the order dated January 15, 2021 of NGT and is liable to be proceeded against under the Contempt of Court Act,” the judge said.

“In case notification under section 20 is not issued within 2 weeks, Chief Secretary shall be liable for contempt of court and notice of contempt shall be framed,” he said.

The court added the official shall appear virtually before it for framing of contempt notice if the notification with respect to declaration of reserved forest is not issued.

The court also expressed its displeasure over the monthly meetings of an oversight committee not being held as per the NGT order to deal with the issue of encroachment in the ridge area.

The court made the chief secretary as well as the director general of forests parties to the proceedings which concern removal of encroachment from the ridge, asserting that the administration cannot claim helplessness.

Advocate Aditya N Prasad, the amicus curiae assisting the court, recalled that the NGT had said the ridge in Delhi has historical and environmental significance and demanded urgent action to protect it by taking necessary steps to finalise the notification under section 20 of the Indian Forest Act.

The NGT had also ordered constitution of an Oversight Committee under the DG (Forest) of the Government of India to oversee the progress with regard to removal of encroachments from the ridge, he added.

The court said if the NGT order is not followed in letter and spirit, it shall be constrained to issue contempt notice to the officials concerned.

“End of the day, it is the administration which has to take care of this. If you are incapable, make a statement (that) God help citizens of Delhi…I will record it and not waste time,” Justice Singh remarked.

The court said despite the NGT order, encroachment removal was going on at a slow pace, which showed lack of effort on part of the officials concerned.

“The NGT order directed meeting of the oversight committee once a month so there should have been 34 meetings. The minutes of meetings show that the 6th meeting was held on May 17 and next is proposed to be held on November 14, clearly showing that the NGT order is not being complied with,” stated the court.

Calling is “shocking”, the judge noted that out of 394 hectares of encroached forest land, only 82 hectares was recovered over a period of 4 years, which was also stated to have been re-encroached now.

The Delhi government counsel said he will verify the status of the reclaimed land and get back to the court.

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“The non-action of the oversight committee shows total disregard. In case the directions of the NGT are not acted upon scrupulously in letter, intent and spirit, the court shall be constrained to issued contempt notice,” the judge warned.

The court asked the authorities to file an “up to date” status report in the matter, including on the aspect of concrete steps for removal of encroachment and afforestation on the reclaimed land.

The court, which had earlier demanded allocation of 750 hectares of land by the city authorities for developing an alternative forest, was informed that the process has been initiated for eco-restoration of a patch in Isapur.

It asked the Delhi government to conclude all necessary steps within two weeks to declare it a “reserved forest” and sought the presence of the divisional commissioner concerned through virtual mode if case of non-compliance.

The matter would be heard next on December 15.

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