When home owners won against the forest land judgement…

When lakhs of residents in Mumbai, were declared ‘encroachers’, as their houses were built on forest land, Prakash Paddikal led a decade-long fight that went in the residents’ favour

Prakash Paddikal, a businessman and president of the Hillside Residents’ Welfare Association (HIRWA), is a hero for many middle-class residents whose homes border the national park in Mumbai. Paddikal led a fight against the Maharashtra government, to legalise the houses of 5.5 lakh residents in the area.

For over ten years, he fought a case that reached the Supreme Court (SC), on behalf of residents who were declared ‘encroachers’ as their houses were built on forest land. “In 2005, we came to know that the revenue department at the Tehsildar’s office was making entries in the revenue records (7/12 extract of land records),” recalled Paddikal. “We filed an RTI application and found out that they were putting the claim of ‘forest department’ on the land records,” he explained.

How it all started…

The problem began when the issue about constructions around the national park cropped up in 2001. A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by the NGO Bombay Environmental Action Group to update the state’s land records as per the Maharashtra Private Forests (MPF) Act, 1975. Consequently, large tracts of land in Mulund, Bhandup, Nahur and Mahul (including BARC, HPCL and BPCL), were tagged as forest land. A similar situation emerged in Kandivali, Borivali, Dahisar, Thane, and several other parts of Maharashtra. Several projects since 2006 also stalled, as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) issued stop-work notices.

“The state government acted in an arbitrary and unilateral manner and no notices were served to the owners of the land,” he maintains. According to the BMC’s Development Plan of 1967 and 1991, these areas were marked for land use and the same was endorsed by the government. The BMC approved building plans on these lands, and even issued occupation certificates. All these buildings were completely legal till 2005, he points out.

Demand for removal of forest land tag

Paddikal, along with lakhs of residents under the banner of HIRWA, objected to the state’s decision and asked it to remove the ‘forest land’ tag from the revenue records. However, the state refused. “The government stated that they were doing it on an order from the High Court. We filed a PIL in 2006 against the state government but the judgement went in favour of the Maharashtra government,” he added. This defeat did not deter Paddikal who started giving lectures and mobilising residents, developers and landowners. He then approached the SC with a special leave petition (SLP).

After numerous hearings, the SC took the view of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which proposed the payment of the net present value (NPV) from the affected people, for regularising the constructions. The residents paid the money but protested against the decision and continued fighting the case. Their perseverance paid off in January 2014, when a three-judge bench declared the decision of the Maharashtra government as completely illegal and directed it to remove the forest land tag.

Despite this, the state now maintains that the order is only applicable to the petitioners in the case, laments Paddikal. “When the apex court pronounces a judgement, it becomes the law of the land. Those with vested interests, are interpreting the judgment in a wrong way. The state government and its machinery are responsible for the hardship faced by residents,” he fumes.

“The most important move the government should make now, is to digitise all records,” he concludes.

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