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Will Jagpal be another Godavarman?
By Ritwick Dutta



Unlike the Supreme Court order on forest in T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs Union of India case, the order with respect to common land in Jagpal Singh Vs Union of India is largely unknown and hardly any initiative has been taken by concerned groups including NGOs.


Armed with Supreme Court judgment, villagers can get common lands vacated

In 1996, the Supreme Court passed a landmark order on forest: expanding the definition of forest from areas declared as forest in government records to an all encompassing term which includes all areas which satisfy the dictionary meaning of forest. The court directed that in all areas which are forests, irrespective of ownership and classification, no forest land can be diverted for ‘non forest purposes’ without the prior approval of the central government.

The case titled as T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs Union of India triggered series of action across the country. The forest departments got a new lease of life, as well as added responsibility. However, what was significant was the role of NGOs, concerned individuals in using the Godavarman judgment in protecting areas of vital ecological importance. Thus, a retired Range officer fought and succeeded in stopping the Kudremukh Iron ore Company from destroying the Western Ghats, while NGOs in Mumbai succeeded in sending the Forest Minister and additional Chief Secretary to Jail for one month for allowing saw mills to operate in violation of law. Even after a decade and a half the Godavarman case continues to be heard on a weekly basis by the Supreme Court and continues to spring surprise: the action against mining in Bellary by the ‘Reddy Brothers’ is the most recent court’s action.

In January 2011, the Supreme Court passed an order which had the potential to be as important (if not more) than the Godavarman judgment. This relates to the Supreme Court’ judgment in Jagpal Singh Vs Union of India where the Supreme Court observed the need to protect ‘common lands’ across the country, whether in the form of ponds, grazing grounds, Ramlila grounds, graveyards etc.

The Supreme Court directed for speedy eviction of all encroachments and stated that long years of occupation and investments made should not be the reason for regularization of encroachment of common land.

According to the Court, these areas were meant for common use by the village community at large and could not be used for commercial purposes, but unfortunately, a combination of ‘muscle power, political power and money power’ has led to the usurpation of this common land by private vested interests. The Court directed for speedy eviction of all encroachments and stated that long years of occupation and investments made should not be the reason for regularization of encroachment of common land. In view of the importance of the issue, the Supreme Court following the Godavarman model decided to monitor the implementation of the order.

It is surprising that unlike the Supreme Court order on Forest, the order with respect to common land is largely unknown and very limited initiative has been taken by concerned groups including NGOs (barring few), in ensuring that the order is implemented in letter and spirit. Jagpal Singh’s judgement offers immense scope in protecting not only the common land, but also the lives and livelihood of people who depend on common land. Over the last few years, some of the most intense environmental struggles have been over common lands. The struggle to save the wetlands of Naupada and Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh from the thermal power plants, to protection of riverine islands in Assam from the dams in Arunachal Pradesh have all centred on the need to protect the common lands. Unfortunately, in most of the battles, the local communities have been unaware of the ruling of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s order on Common Land in Jagpal Singh’s case has as much, if not much wider scope than its orders on Forest Conservation. However, it is for communities and Civil Society Organisations to work together to get it implemented, since neither the State nor the Corporate sector can be expected to be its champion.

Only time will tell whether Jagpal judgment turns into another Godavarman! Now it’s up to Civil Society how it grabs the opportunity to make it into another historic judgment and expands its implementation and impact. Little initiatives can save our precious common lands.

Ritwick Dutta  |  ritwickdutta@gmail.com

Ritwick Dutta is a leading environmental lawyer and activist of India. He has authored and edited many books and journals on environmental law and provides training to NGOs, government officials and young lawyers.

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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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