KUMRAM BHEEM ASIFABAD: The sensational Kotha Sarsala incident drew the attention of the nation. Following the gruesome assault on a female forest official and her team of 40, the Forest Department officials across the State stood firm and accomplished the mission – planting saplings in a piece of land where some locals were having objections.
In an interview to Telangana Today, District Forest Officer L Ranjeet Nayak narrates the implications of the attack, efforts to resolve conflicts and steps taken to protect the forests. “The department is committed to protect the forest cover which is an asset for Telangana in Godavari belt area and source of life for future generations,” he said, adding that the department was looking at ways and means to check the clashes.
Q: How did Forest Department take the Sarsala incident?
DFO: It was completely unexpected. We never anticipated it. No tribals were involved in it. The offenders were recent encroachers. One or two people instigated the attack. We had to bounce back and go to the field and prove that we were not wrong. Right from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests to FBO came together in a show of unity.
The incident initially demoralised the department officials to some extent. The support extended by the government and senior officials, however, restored the morale of the foresters. The very next day, we could take up the activity. It made us feel more empowered. Still, we have to look into how forest officials can feel secure.
TT: How much land of the department is encroached on in the district?
DFO: Forest Department owns around 6 lakh acres of land. On an average, somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 acres of land in Asifabad and Kaghaznagar revenue divisions, is in illegal cultivation zone till date. Part of the land was assigned by revenue officials for economically weak families and other purposes. The encroachers included both tribals and non-tribals.
TT: Is Prohibition Orders of Book (PoB) maintained properly?
DFO: Mandal Revenue Officers (MRO) or Tahsildars are custodian officers of the POB. They are supposed to maintain the records. They should not assign lands prohibited, including forest. Similarly, block notifications with regard to reserve forest and records were not updated. Negligence in updating the records paved way for menace of encroaching and the present mess up.
TT: Any steps to resolve conflict between officials and land occupants?
DFO: Firstly, to reconcile the land records is the utmost duty of the department. Certain things like what is reserve forest and what is not, has to be finalised. The process is on and it will be culminated by the end of this month. Collector and other revenue officials are extending their cooperation in carrying out the exercise. Till now, out of total 6 lakh acres, over 3 lakh acres of forest land has been incorporated in records of the Revenue Department. Officials are working on to find out status of the remaining land.
Secondly, identification of quantum of assignments of lands belonging to Forest Department should be done. Unfortunately, the department had not surveyed its land and numbers were altered over a period of time. There is a mismatch between the survey numbers. So, we are coordinating with concerned officials for learning about the details of assignees.
Lastly, our officials are told not to interfere in lands being possessed by some farmers even though the lands are owned by the department. Let us respect it. Let government take a decision as the process of reconciliation and conciliation of the records is on. That’s why we did not touch the assigned lands so far. I feel this move will help in reducing the clashes in the future.
TT: How do you allay the apprehensions of tribals over forest lands?
DFO: We are going as per Forest Protection Act 1972 and relevant Acts. We are trying to retrieve recent encroachments. Lands occupied and rights given before 2005 will not be touched. Government of India is not recognising lands occupied after 2005. We are creating awareness over this and are giving ample time to occupants to respond to notices for occupying forest lands.