Slow and unsteady, PLPC won’t win Rajasthan the race against encroachers

Slow and unsteady, PLPC won’t win Rajasthan the race against encroachers

Slow and unsteady, PLPC won’t win Rajasthan the race against encroachers

In its present format, the public land protection cells in districts are unequipped to deal with cases of encroachment into commons within the stipulated time


Hanumangarh, Rajasthan: A resident of Chohilanwali in Hanumangarh district, Nanakram wants encroachments on the village cattle pond and public lands removed. As his applications to various administrative and revenue officials failed to elicit a reply, he was forced to move the Rajasthan High Court.

“While disposing of my petition, the HC told me to approach the Public Land Protection Cell (PLPC) in Hanumangarh to get my complaint redressed within three months. Without any delay, I moved the cell. It has been a year and a half, but no action has been taken,” he tells 101Reporters.

However, Nanakram is in no mood to give up. His contempt plea against the officials concerned for disobeying the court order will be heard this month. “If commons are occupied, where will our animals graze?” he vents his anger.

People from across Rajasthan share Nanakram’s frustration as orans (sacred groves), gochars (pasture lands) and ponds in a multitude of villages have fallen into the wrong hands. Encroachers have constructed houses on them, while the influential among them have built shops. Elsewhere, farming is being carried out.  

Observing that the writ petitions were full of allegations of encroachments on grazing lands, ponds, rivers, riverbeds and public lands, the High Court (HC) had in Jagdish Prasad Meena and Ors vs State of Rajasthan and Ors said a common allegation was that no steps were taken despite repeated complaints and representations to the revenue officials concerned.

While disposing of the petition on January 30, 2019, the HC sought the formation of PLPCs in all 33 districts of Rajasthan headed by the respective district Collector and functioning under their direction and supervision. 

On receipt of a complaint, the PLPC should get the facts checked by the sub-divisional magistrate/tehsildar/naib tehsildar through a field investigation. If the allegations are found true, the encroachment would be removed and appropriate punitive action initiated.

Presumably, the HC’s observation upheld the sanctity of common lands that are vital to the livelihoods of the people of Rajasthan. It was also bound to rescue the court from a swarm of petitions against encroachments of the commons.

For the complainant, the biggest advantage was that the entire legal/official action would be completed within 90 days from the date of filing of the complaint, after which the action taken is conveyed to the complainant. The cell’s working is quite simple when compared with the long wait for justice and the costs incurred in hiring a lawyer for the court proceedings, said Jaipur-based advocate Satish Kumar Khandelwal, who appeared for Meena in the HC.

However, things did not work out well as people continued to approach the HC.

People from across Rajasthan are frustrated as orans (sacred groves), gochars (pasture lands) and ponds in a multitude of villages have fallen into the wrong hands (Photo - Flickr/ICARDA)


A role too lax

Khandelwal tells 101Reporters that the PLPCs are inactive in most districts. “Since the court had ordered its formation while hearing our case, the authorities acted swiftly on it. But in other districts, this promptness has been missing,” he says.  

Take the case of Tonk district where Malpura resident Chhitarmal Sharma had moved the HC seeking the removal of encroachments from 600 bighas of pasture land in Dhaula ka Kheda village. While redirecting him to Tonk PLPC, the court ordered action within two months from the district administration. Since nothing happened, in September last year, the HC issued a notice to the Collector for contempt

In Pali district, the HC gave three months’ time to probe into the matter, but nothing changed almost three years after Durgaram of Deoli Kalan filed the petition against encroachments on commons in Aagor. The court had disposed of his petition on July 23, 2019, but the subsequent official inaction had prompted the HC to warn of serious consequences.

In reaction, Pali Collector banned new constructions on the land concerned. However, in his order dated July 12 last year, he also said that An appeal is pending in the court of Additional District Collector, Pali, against the order of allotment of this land made in 1974. As long as the allotment order issued on December 19, 1974, from the court is not set aside and the land is again registered as abadi in the records, it is not appropriate to demolish the constructions considering them as encroachments.

In pursuance, Pali additional district Collector set aside the 1974 allotment order on August 24 last. “In 1974, the then tehsildar had gone out of his jurisdiction to convert 25 acres of oran into abadi land. This was reversed by the additional district Collector. Despite regaining the oran status, encroachments were not removed,” says Mahendra Kumawat, a former sarpanch of Deoli Kalan.

Even as cases pile up with the PLPC, the irony remains that encroachments are back in quite a few lands that were cleared following its orders. Attesting this fact, Poonamram Bishnoi, who had first moved the HC and then the PLPC demanding clearance of gochars in Jhotra village of Jalore, says he was once again doing the rounds with complaints and was set for another long battle.

Concerned citizens like Nanakram (left) from Chohilanwali in Hanumangarh district and Poonamram Bishnoi (right) from Jhotra village of Jalore have faced disappointment and delays when they tried to take cases of encroachment into their commons to the local PLPCs (Photos sourced by Amarpal Singh Verma)


Lame excuses

There is no dearth of judicial intervention when it comes to protecting the commons. According to BK Sharma, the programme director (field operations) of Bundi-based NGO Sarva Mangal Rural Development Institute, the most significant among them came in Jagpal Singh & Ors vs State Of Punjab & Ors. The Rajasthan HC has also issued about a dozen orders, but the governments of the day neither want to anger the public nor the mining and real estate lobbies. Hence, it initiates measures to implement the court orders but never completes them, said Sharma.

“The PLPC’s ability to resolve issues related to commons at the district level is a big plus. But we need to see what powers it has and how accountable its officials are. These two things are very important as otherwise the officials may not take their work seriously. Only when accountability is fixed can a question on why a certain complaint was not settled within the stipulated period be raised,” he explains.

According to a media report, only 129 of the total 270 cases that came before the PLPC were settled till date. The cell usually does not have a separate office, and is generally looked after by the Land Revenue Branch. When asked about the pending cases in Hanumangarh, Ashok Sachdeva, Administrative Officer, Land Revenue Branch of the District Collectorate, says besides bringing up the issue of encroachments on grasslands, ponds and pastures, people were complaining about streets, playgrounds and other lands with the PLPC.

“The district administration has written to the State government seeking guidance over which type of cases should be considered by the cell,” he added. In reaction, advocate Khandelwal says all those were lame excuses as the HC order had mentioned all kinds of encroachments.

Banswara-based RTI activist Gopiram Agarwal backs him when he says, “The PLPC is only on paper. The authorities do not want to do anything. They are not afraid of anyone… Even the news of the cell’s constitution was not publicised properly, due to which the common man still approaches courts.”  

True to this fact, several people whom this correspondent spoke to expressed ignorance about the PLPC. Even Rajasthan Minister of State for Revenue Sukhram Bishnoi is not aware of its formation in districts! Bishnoi tells this correspondent, "I do not know whether such cells have been constituted in districts. I will find out from the officials.”  

Flicker of hope

There are instances where encroachments have been removed as per the PLPC orders. For example, in Maylawas village in Siwana tehsil of Barmer district, over 100 encroachments on orans, gochars and nadi-nalas were cleared in a phased manner.   

Maylawas resident Arjun Singh Rajpurohit had filed a public interest litigation in Rajasthan HC, which was transferred to the PLPC on September 21, 2021. As the encroachments were not cleared even after three months, Rajpurohit filed a contempt plea. When the court summoned the officials, they sought time and finally started removing encroachments on April 26 last year. The next round of evictions happened recently on December 9, and more are to follow.

Despite the effort, Rajpurohit is not fully satisfied. “About 200 shops built on commons have not been removed yet. Till then, I will keep on fighting.”

The fight put up by people like Rajpurohit and Nanakram matters the most as the future of livestock in Rajasthan is linked with that of common lands. As Hanumangarh's senior advocate Mohammad Mushtaq Joia puts it, “We already face fodder shortage. If pastures are not freed, this problem is bound to worsen. Our animals will have to migrate, else they will starve to death.”   

 

Cover Photo: There are instances where encroachments have been removed as per the PLPC orders but they are few and far between; and sometimes these encroachments have even made a return (Photo sourced by Amarpal Singh Verma)

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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