Tuesday, May 06, 2008

SC stays construction on forest land

New Delhi/Mumbai: Over one lakh flats in Mumbai which were declared illegal by the Bombay high court on the ground that they were on “forest land’’ will not face any coercive action until Augustend, the Maharashtra government promised in the Supreme Court on Monday.
But the good news ends there. Discarding the plea of a number of builders developing plots on such “forest land’’ to continue with ongoing construction activity at their own risk, the SC ordered that not a single brick be added to the unfinished structures.
“There shall not be any more construction at these sites,’’ ordered a bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice M K Sharma. This means that as of Monday, there will be a status quo, and builders will not be allowed to add anything to their underdeveloped real estate projects.
The order will adversely affect ongoing projects on 1,000 acres of land in Kandivli, Borivli, Mulund, Bhandup and Ghatkopar. There are about 150 large projects being constructed by builders, which market sources value at Rs 25,000 crore.
The affected developers include Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Company Ltd, Nanabhai Jeejeebhoy Private Ltd, Atithi Builders, Nirmal Lifestyle Ltd, Nirmal Developers, Nirmal Holdings Ltd, Runwal Constructions, Bitcon India Infrastructure, Hill Residents Welfare Association and Scrader Duncan Ltd. STATE’S BAILOUT PLAN
As per existing norms, if there is a violation of the Indian Forest Act, the violator has to pay a huge sum—comprising the net present value, the cost of land and the cost of compensatory afforestation—which works out to between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh per hectare. In a move to protect the interests of innocent flat buyers, the state forest department has proposed a new scheme whereby a flat owner on private forest land will have to pay a nominal price of 70 paise per sq ft. “We will submit our scheme to the apex court and it is up to the court to take a decision,’’ a forest official said on Monday. Cannot condone illegality on time grounds, says SC New Delhi/Mumbai: The history of the forest land case dates back to 1957, when the state forest department notified about 300 plots of land as forest land. The state government enacted the Maharashtra Private Forest (Acquisition) Act which came into force from August 30, 1975. Under this law, the state was to acquire all private forest land.
More than 25 years later, an NGO, the Bombay Environment Action Group, moved the HC accusing the state of sitting on the law and taking no action to acquire the 305 plots that the state forest department had notified.
In 2006, the BMC had issued a stop-work notice to the projects on these plots but the developers had gone ahead with the construction.
The builders contended in the SC that there were errors in the HC order. They said while the forest department had declared certain lands as private forest land, no notices were served on them before issuing the notification. Secondly, they said, permissions for non-forest activities and construction of residential buildings were granted decades ago when the lands were cleared for residential use as per the development plan approved in 1967 and 1981. They said at no point did the lands under dispute enjoy the character of forest land, therefore, it was never private forest land as was claimed by the forest department.
Senior advocate Fali S Nariman argued that the state government had done nothing for 33 years after the law was passed and suddenly, it now seemed that the owners of the land would lose everything. He said the plots were allowed to be developed under town planning laws.
Solicitor general G E Vahanvati, appearing for the state, said the Maharashtra government would not take any coercive measures until August-end and said the matter required adjudication before the Forest Bench of the apex court.
Senior advocates K K Venugopal and A M Singhvi argued that the builders who had invested hundreds of crores of rupees in these projects be allowed to carry on with the construction activity at their own risk.
The bench remained firm and said, “We will allow the status quo. We will not allow any further construction to go on. Going by the definition, it’s a case pertaining to classification of forest land. If an illegality had been done 30 years ago by diverting the forest land, the court cannot condone it because of the passage of time.’’
The court, while issuing notice to the Maharashtra government, fixed the matter for further hearing on August 22.

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