A Supreme Court bench comprising of CJI SA Bobde, J Abdul Nazeer and J Sanjiv Khanna today heard a long pending matter regarding Elephant Corridors across the country, notably in Nilgiri hills & Rajaji National park.
The issues before the court were whether construction of buildings along these Elephant corridors were legal or not, and whether those who have been in possession of land in these areas deserved compensation if they were to be evicted. The first issue encompassed the questions regarding declaration of areas as forest land, notifications regarding specific parts as corridors and the subsequent purpose of forests after being declaring as above.
Senior Advocate Salman Khurshid appeared for people who own land in the Gopapuram area of Nilgiri and urged that the particular area had not been declared corridor. He went on to argue that if the court comes to the conclusion that the area was a corridor, those who owned land there for a long time must be given a replacement in lieu of eviction. Compensation, essentially, as clarified by CJI Bobde.
Khurshid submitted that they were looking to protect elephant corridors. However, four corridors had been merged into one large one, he said, and the issue had become a larger one of the definition of corridors, which isn't clear.
Early on in the hearing, the Bench, through CJI Bobde, made it quite clear that they were of the opinion that resorts cannot be allowed in forests and asked resort owners who suggested coexistence between man and elephant why they (men) were in the forest at all.
While Khurshid agreed to the possibility of a committee looking into the aspect of compensation, as suggested by the CJI, he urged the bench to first decide issues regarding if the area was a declared corridor. J Bobde agreed.
Additional Solicitor General, ANS Nadkarni asserted the construction of resorts had taken place on land that was acquired illegally. The area was a declared forest which could only be used for forest purposes, he argued. No construction work was permitted, and in such a scenario, the same ought to be declared illegal. The Amicus Curiae also said it was forest land, and suggested an exercise of valuation be carried out to determine the worth of the same. Tamil Nadu government, however was of the opinion that the issue was not about acquisition as it was about regulation. It's regulated land, they submitted, whereby the state government would be in a position to declare legality.
Khurshid then argued that the land in question was a private forest, as opposed to a declared forest under the Indian Forest Act. "It would be economical with the truth to say these are declared forests", he stated and explained that a declared private forest is not the same as a forest under the Forest Act, which is marked due to the requirement of conservation. Since it did not fall under the category of a declared forest, and is a private land under the management of the government, it could be used for other purposes.
The CJI however didn't seem impressed and stated that a private forest would still be part of a larger forest. The bench went on to assure that while looking into compensation, they're looking to give it to those in possession of land for over 30 years, ascertain those entitled to the same and filter out encroachers.
Khurshid then went on to show how the hotels had been made on patta land, in residential areas. ASG Nadkarni assured that it had been declared a forest in 1992 and then refered to a 1996 judgment to say all forests, including private forests, were only to be used for forest purposes. "Irrespective of ownership, the term forest includes all areas", he added.
Khurshid again contested that the land doesnt fall under the official elephant corridors category as declared by the government, but are merely notified forest lands. He then conceded that there is no case made out if resorts fall under the category of original corridors, but if it's regarding the expanded corridor, they have a case. The bench reiterated that they were looking to uphold it as an elephant corridor and appoint a panel to decide on compensation. Khurshid was agreeable but went on to argue issues regarding declared and notified forests, and the purpose of private and declared forests extensively.
Eventually the CJI upheld the Elephant corridor, and the notification to that effect. He further informed that a 3 member committee will be appointed to verify illegal construction illegal and those entitled for compensation. This committee is to include one Retired High Court judge and 2 experts. These experts must be agreed upon by the parties involved, and their names must be submitted to the bench through a joint statement. The formal order has been reserved and will be passed next week.