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Supreme Court nixes private forest tag: Mumbai opened up for development, Godrej is big gainer

Comments Off on Supreme Court nixes private forest tag: Mumbai opened up for development, Godrej is big gainer   |   February 1, 2014    04:18pm   |Contributed by manoja

MUMBAI: The Supreme Court on Thursday removed the “private forest” tag attached to huge swathes of land across the state by the government and upheld by the Bombay high court, freeing lakhs of acres for development.

In Mumbai, the ruling brings relief to at least five lakh residents and builders linked to hundreds of acres in Thane, Mulund, Bhandup, Nahur, Mahul, Borivli, Kandivli, Virar, Badlapur and Ambernath, who will also get back crores paid as fine to the state. The biggest gainer is Godrej, which can now build on 133 acres in Vikhroli.

Striking down the 2008 HC order, the apex court also quashed all notices issued by the state under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 decades ago. It affects owners of almost 6.4 lakh acres in the state.

It criticized the state for “leading citizens up a garden path for several decades” and for its “active consent in permitting construction through the years” and said now, residents alone cannot be asked to bear the brunt. The state cannot be allowed to demolish the “massive constructions made on it (the land) over the last half century”, the court added.

Praveen Padeshi, principal secretary, revenue and forests, was not available for comment.

After the state government delineated the 6.4 lakh acres as forest land on a 2001 plea filed by the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG), petitioners moved the high court. In 2008, the HC held that a showcause notice issued in the 50s and 60s under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 to various private land owners on their “forest” holdings meant that the land had to be treated as “private forest” land under the law. The notices had not become “stale” or dead merely due to passage of time, it added.

A three-judge SC bench of Justices R M Lodha, M B Lokur and Kurian Joseph allowed a bunch of appeals by Godrej & Boyce, Oberoi Constructions, a host of other developers as well as residents’ bodies affected by the HC ruling like the Hillside Residents Welfare Association from Mulund. On Thursday, it overturned the HC ruling.

“The principal question for consideration is whether the mere issuance of a notice under the provisions of Section 35(3) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, is sufficient for any land being declared a ‘private forest’ within the meaning of that expression as defined by Maharashtra Private Forests (Acquisition) Act, 1975. In our opinion, the question must be answered in the negative,” the bench said.

It observed that a consent decree in 1962 between Godrej and the state that allowed Godrej to hold on to its land for cultivation described the land as “waste land” and not “forest”.

The HC had dismissed arguments by residents association that since the city’s development plan allowed the land to be used for residential and commercial construction or industrial use, it ought not to be treated as forest any longer. “A private forest is a forest and upon its vesting in the state government by virtue of the Private Forest (Acquisition) Act would remain as such… there is no question of a development plan superimposing itself on its status,” it had said.

The SC said the state actively permitted construction on hundreds of acres for decades and it was thus “natural for a reasonable citizen to assume that whatever actions are being taken are in accordance with law… They are now told that their investment is actually in unauthorized constructions which are liable to be demolished any time even after several decades. There is no reason why these citizens should be the only victims of such a fate”.

Slamming the state for poor governance, it added: “These appeals raise larger issues of good administration and governance and the state has, regrettably, come out in poor light”.

Godrej denied receiving any notice under the 1927 forest Act and learnt of it only in 2006 by which time it had lawfully constructed more than 200 tenements for its employees on its land.

The SC said “…all that can be said of the state is that its Rip Van Winkle-ism enabled the appellants to obtain valid permissions from various authorities, from time to time, to make constructions over a long duration. The appellants and individual citizens cannot be faulted or punished for that”.

The ruling obviously elicited feelings of relief. “Absolutely relieved. Eight years of my life just gone. Now I can devote my time to better society. The experience I have gained I shall use for public good,” said Prakash Paddikal, president of the Hillside Residents Welfare Association.

Sunil Mantri, president of the National Real Estate Development Council, said over 100 housing projects were affected. “Both developers and flat purchasers were under tremendous pressure. It’s a big relief now that they have received the green signal from the apex court,” he said.


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