India: Land rights in reserve forests are limited by courts, but only for some

Kodagu district has a unique set of land holding rights, with several
intricacies. Among the various matters of contention are the
district’s Jamma-bane lands. Jamma malai is a portion of the reserve
forests in which landholders who have held land there for generations
have been given the right to grow cardamom. The forest department
considers Jamma as reserve forests. Bane is the land that is used for
grazing and for supply of timber for agricultural and domestic use.
Bane attached to the wetland is known as Jamma-bane. Kodavas have
sought the right to chop age-old trees in Jamma land. They have sought
the government to amend the Trees Act, which prohibits them to cut
standing trees. An Act like this has been lost on the Kodava, who
fails to see the implications of chopping trees.

In reality, the last
three to four decades have seen ruthless deforestation and large-scale
encroachments in Kodagu’s forests. A phenomenal boom in the prices of
plantation crops have resulted in forests being encroached upon and
murdered silently. And it is here that the Act helps. Former
conservator of forests, Kodagu, C B Venkatsubbaiah, strictly
implemented it and asked people to obey the rules. A well known
advocate K G Uthappa has brought out a book and brochure (published by
the Kodagu Model Forest Trust) to dispel the confusion over land
tenures, land holding and tree rights of Kodagu. Claims of people with
regard to ownership of bane lands by way of writ petitions was
considered by the High Court of Karnataka. In its 1993 judgement, the
Court held that it was not possible for holders of Jamma-bane lands to
become its owners. In 2006, the then principal secretary of Revenue
department S M Jaamdar in a circular directed the Deputy Commissioner
not to consider any petition for conversion of bane land. When several
Coorgis filed writ petitions on land holding rights, the High Court
held that jamma-bane lands are government lands.

The holders of bane
lands enjoy certain privileges such as that of using timber for
agriculture and domestic purposes. However, they have no ownership
rights. In 1990, the Supreme Court issued directions to the centre not
to entertain any proposals to regularise encroachments. Over the last
two-three decades, timber in Kodagu has been ruthlessly looted.
According to the Yellappa Reddy report, nearly Rs five thousand crores
worth of forest wealth has been lost in Kodagu. Another dimension to
the deforestation and encroachment issue in Kodagu has been tourism.
Regular visitors to Kodagu, like Krishna Kumar, point out that resorts
are mushrooming and land value has increased many folds over the last
few years. Will short-term profits be foregone for the less tangible
long-term benefits? One needs to wait and watch.

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