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Maharashtra govt "illegally" demolishing slums in protected mangrove area along Mumbai coasts: Medha Patkar

Mangroves overlooking Bhim Chhaya slum of Kammanwar Nagar
By Our Representative
Taking advantage of a High Court order, the Mangroves Cell of Maharashtra Forest Department, formed in 2012 to “conserve and replenish” mangroves, is allegedly seeking to demolish even slum dwellings, which are “protected” by the cut-off date – January 1, 2000 – set by the state government.
The Bombay High Court, on October 6, 2005, in an order on a PIL filed by the Bombay Environment and Action Group, had said that all the mangrove areas and the land within a distance of 50 meters from mangrove areas be declared as ‘protected forests’ (government lands) and ‘forests’ (private lands).
Well-known social activist Medha Patkar, who is fighting for the slum-dwellers’ land, has contended that the cell is seeking to demolish even those shanties, which came into being more than five years prior to the cut off date, seeking to make the entire area free of any humans.
This, she believes, is against provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, under which the land having the status of ‘protected forests’ for a maximum period of 30 years can have certain amount of human interference, which is not possible for land designated as ‘reserved forests’.
“In other words, in case of ‘protected forests’, every activity, except those specifically prohibited, is permitted, while in ‘reserved forests’, every activity except those that are permitted, are prohibited”, the top activist says a statement.
“Before declaring any land as ‘reserved forest’, it is the duty of the Forest Settlement Officer to settle the rights of the people who have been occupying that land”, the activist, who heads the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), the apex body of several mass organizations, says.
She says, “Ensuring the prima facie legality of the rights claimed by the occupants of that land, the Forest Settlement Officer can exempt that part of the land, on which the rights are claimed, from being declared as ‘reserved forests’ and take over the rest of the land as per the Land Acquisition Act.”
Yet, Patkar says, “the Mangrove Cell is hell bent on evicting the people on land notified as ‘reserved forests’. This hasty action of demolishing the slums by the cell is depriving people of their housing rights.”
She adds, referring to the recent eviction of the whole slum at Malvani, a senior cell official, when asked, “shamefully admitted” that, once in action, they cannot distinguish between old and the new houses, or those lying perfectly on the boundaries of the forest and outside.”
Comments Patkar, “This indicates that they are incapable of locating the notified regions on the ground from the maps. It shows the political expediency and callous attitude of the cell towards the poor, toiling masses and their rights”, adding, “Several thousand slum dwellers are under threat of eviction.”
While 2,500 were demolished in Navi Mumbai as these were on a 36-sq-km range of the mangrove cover, and another 600 were demolished in Malvani, Malad, “more slums in Kannamwar Nagar, Cheetah Camp, Colaba are under threat”, she says.
Meanwhile, recently, the NGO taking up slum dwellers’ rights, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, recently submitted a report to the Collector, Mumbai Suburban District, who is the chairman of the District Coastal Zone Monitoring Committee, specifying new concrete structures have come up in the mangrove areas.
This, Patkar says, exposes the state government’s “callous and biased attitude towards the poor”, adding, it suggests, the government is showering chunks of land to celebrities and for cow shelters, but it considers the poor of the city too insignificant to get any land for housing.”

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