Whose land?

Whose land? The Kerala High Court has blocked the state government's highly-publicised distribution of 28,588 ha of forest land to migrant farmers who occupied the land prior to 1977. On September 15, the court stayed the distribution of title deeds for land either occupied originally by tribals or included in the Idukki wildlife sanctuary.

The order came in the wake of a writ petition filed by K R Janardanan, general secretary of the All Travancore Mala Araya Mahasabha, an organisation of hill tribals. He questioned the constitutional validity of legalising title deeds for forest and tribal land encroached upon by farmers. He also pointed out the move would jeopardise the environment and affect an internationally sponsored project to save elephants. Environmentalists had also warned this would encourage further felling and poaching.

The Kerala government started distributing title deeds on World Forestry Day at a function in Idukki presided over by Union environment minster Kamal Nath. The state obtained permission from the ministry, on the condition that compensatory afforestation would be done in double the area of the land distributed. Even the Idukki wildlife sanctuary was not spared. Says G Shaheed, a member of the state wildlife board, "They have given title deeds for plots right inside the sanctuary."

The government claims the encroached land is no longer a forest. The tribals, however, had reportedly sought government intervention to restore the rights to their land before title deeds were distributed.

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