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Gauhati HC dismisses PIL seeking to quash notification of reserve forest boundary

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The Gauhati High Court has dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) praying for quashing the Notification issued by the Government of Mizoram, Forests and Soil Conservation Department declaring the boundary description of Chalfilh State Reserve Forest.

The PIL has been filed by Chairman and Secretary of a conglomeration of Non-Governmental Organisations from the villages of Lailak and Khanpui, within Saitual District in the State of Mizoram.

The grievance of the petitioners is that the  impugned Notification dated 13.07.1976 has been issued without affording any opportunity of hearing to the residents of the two villages located at the foothills of Chalfilh Tlang (Tlang means mountain or hill). The further grievance of the petitioners is that in view of the Order dated 17.11.2021 passed by the National Green Tribunal, Eastern Zone Bench, Kolkata in Original Application No. 145/2017/EZ and the Judgment dated 19.01.2022 passed in MA No. 13/2021/EZ in Original Application No. 145/2017/EZ, wherein the State Government has been directed to demolish the illegal constructions made on forest land and to restore the land, including the road, back to its original form, which are inside the boundary description of Chalfilh State Reserve Forest, would cause great hardship to the villagers of Khanpui and Lailak villages. It is the case of the petitioners that the road which is inside Chalfilh State Reserve Forest, had been used by the villagers of the two villages, even prior to declaring the said Chalfilh State Reserve Forest vide Notification dated 13.07.1976.  

While considering the PIL , the Aizawl Bench of Justice Michael Zothankhuma and Justice Marli Vankung observed that in exercise of the powers conferred by Sections 14 to 16 of the Mizo District Forest Act, 1955, the Lt. Governor (Administrator) of Mizoram was pleased to declare the area around Chalfilh Tlang (Tlang means mountain/hill) as ‘State Reserve Forest’ and named as ‘Chalfilh State Reserve Forest’, vide Notification dated 13.07.1976, issued by the Government of Mizoram, Forests and Soil Conservation Department. Subsequent to the declaration of the Chalfilh State Reserve Forest, the Tourism Department, Government of Mizoram made constructions of building(s) under the Chalfilh Tourist Project. A road was also apparently constructed within the Chalfilh State Reserve Forest to reach the newly constructed buildings.

The private respondent filed a complaint in the National Green Tribunal, Eastern Zone Bench, Kolkata, stating that the State Government had illegally made constructions on forest land. After issuing notice to the respondents and recording the submissions made by them, the National Green Tribunal, Eastern Zone Bench, Kolkata, issued Order dated 17.11.2021 holding that the entire construction(s) carried out by the Tourism Department, Government of Mizoram, under the Chalfilh Tourist Project was absolutely illegal and in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and the Environmental Laws. The National Green Tribunal thereafter directed the Government of Mizoram to demolish the illegal construction(s) made in the Chalfilh State Reserve Forest and to remove all the debris from the area, within a month. It also directed that once the demolition had been carried out and debris removed, the Government of Mizoram would also be responsible for restoration of the entire land in question, including the roads, back to its original form.  

Subsequent to the Order dated 17.11.2021 passed by the National Green Tribunal  the Department of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of Mizoram submitted application before the National Green Tribunal, seeking modification of the order dated 17.11.2021, with a prayer to permit the construction(s) made on the site to stand and not be demolished. In MA No. 13/2021/EZ, it was also stated that the Department of Tourism, Government of Mizoram had conveyed its willingness to hand over the buildings and structures including the road in favour of the Department of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of Mizoram, so that the same could be used for works relating to or ancillary to Conservation, Development and Management of Forest and Wildlife.

The National Green Tribunal rejected/ dismissed modification application vide Judgment dated 19.01.2022, by holding that the Tribunal could not legitimize an illegality inherent in destroying and utilization of forest land for non forest purpose. It also held that to allow the Government of Mizoram to use the illegal constructions for alleged forestry purposes, would tantamount to legitimizing the initial inherent illegal conduct of the Government of Mizoram. The National Green Tribunal thus directed the Government of Mizoram to restore the land within the Chalfilh State Reserve Forest to its original form.  

The High Court  has been given a copy of the Order dated 17.05.2022 passed by the Supreme Court in an Appeal  (“The State of Mizoram & Another Vs. Union of India and Others), which are appeals against the Orders passed by the National Green Tribunal in Original Application . The Order dated 17.05.2022 shows that notice had been issued to the respondents and that there has been a stay of the operation of the orders passed by the National Green Tribunal, Eastern Zone Bench, Kolkata in Original Application. Further, the Apex Court has also given permission to the parties to file an affidavit/ additional affidavit, the Court noted.

On a perusal of the orders passed by the National Green Tribunal in Original Application, the High Court further observed that  the petitioners, who are allegedly using the road within the Chalfilh State reserved Forest, even prior to the declaration of the State Reserve Forest, were not heard, as they were not made parties in the said case. The petitioners in the petition have stated that Khanpui Village was established way back in 1884, while Lailak Village was established in 1932.

On considering the fact that the orders passed by the National Green Tribunal in Original Application has a bearing on the petitioners’ grievance, which is under challenge before the Supreme Court of India, in terms of Section 22 of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, the High Court is of the view that the Court is not the appropriate forum to decide the grievance of the petitioners.

“Accordingly, the petitioners may approach the Supreme Court of India with their grievance, concerning the alleged violation of their rights, if any, due to the declaration of Chalfilh State Reserve Forest, vide Notification dated 13.07.1976, if so advised. The writ petition is accordingly dismissed,” the order reads.

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