Manipur Forest Dept slams EGI’s fact-finding team report as concocted, incorrect, and one-sided without verification

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Imphal: The Manipur Forest Department slammed the Editors Guild of India’s (EGI) report of the fact-finding mission on media’s reportage of ethnic violence in Manipur published on September 2, 2023 as incorrect and one-sided without verification from the Forest Department or any competent authority.

In a 7-page clarification dated September 6, signed by SS Chhabra, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest & HoFF, Government of Manipur addressed to the additional Chief Secretary (Forests, Environment and Climate Change, Government of Manipur), stated that the reports appearing on page no 3 and 5 of the EGI report were wrong and without verification from the forest department/authority and have led to misinformation to the public and tarnished the reputation of the department.

Forest Department, Manipur stated that after going through the Editors’ Guild of India’s Report of the fact-finding Mission on media’s reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur published on September 2, the Department found all the reports on page no 3 and photograph on page no 5 relating to the Forest Department, Manipur were false, concocted, and without any basis. “The fact-finding committee has neither consulted the Department nor cross-checked the authenticity of the report and photograph before the same is published in the public domain. It is felt that unless clarifications are made, the report will lead to misinformation to the public and authorities and also tarnish the reputation of the Department,” it added.

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The Forest Department, Manipur released clarification on the following issues:

The EGI report on page 3 said that without following proper procedure as laid down in the Hill Area Committee Act of 1972, the N Biren Singh government declared parts of the Hills as “reserved” and “protected” forests and wetlands. All land ownership documents within these areas were canceled and a drive started to evict them in December 2022 

The Forest Department clarified that no reserved forest or protected forest has been declared during the tenure of the N Biren Singh government. “There are 37 reserved forests and 23 protected forests in the state of Manipur. Out of 37 reserved forests, 21 reserved forests were notified by the Manipur State Darbar from 4.8.1913 to 7.8.1946 and 1 by the State Council on 22.4.1948, 8 by the Chief Commissioner, Manipur from 1.8.1951 to 13.9.1971 and the remaining 7 by the State Government from 9.2.1972 to 4.1.1990. Heingang reserved forest in Imphal East was notified by the Manipur State Darbar vide Resolution No.432 dt 4.8.1913 is the first reserved forest. Nongmaiching reserved forest in Imphal East for which initial notification under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was issued vide notification dated 16. 02.1966, and final notification under Section 20 was issued vide notification No. 66/1/75-For dt 4.1.1990 and Manipur Gazette No.41 dated 17.01.1990 is the last reserved forest in the State.

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Out of 23 protected forests, 17 protected forests were notified by the Chief Commissioner, Manipur from 21.11.1951 to 17.1.1970 and the remaining 6 PFs were notified by the State Government on 18.6.1979 under Section 29 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The total areas of the RFs and PFs are 984 sq Km and 4,171 sq Km respectively which account for only about 4.4% and 18.6% of the geographical area of the State. The total area of RF and PF of the State is only 23% of the geographical area. 

No reserved forest has been notified after 4.1.1990 and no protected forest has been notified after 18.6.1979. Therefore, the EGI’s report that the N. Biren Singh government, which formed its government in 2017 and then in 2022, declared parts of the Hills as ‘reserved’ and ‘protected’ forests and all land ownership documents within these areas were cancelled is completely false, and without any basis.”

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Secondly, the report said that was what led to violent confrontation between the state authorities and the Kuki-Zo community which had been living in these villages. The demolition drive which began in the Kangpokpi District, a Kuki-dominated area, was extended by February 2023 to Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts which also had a preponderance of the Kuki-Zo community.

As per the Forest Department, “no reserved forest or protected forest was notified during the tenure of the Shri N Siren Singh-led government. Therefore, the report of the EGI that the declaration of new reserved forests and protected forests in the Hills by the N Biren Singh government, cancellation of land ownership documents in these areas, and eviction drive led to violent confrontation between the state authorities and the Kuki-Zo community is without any basis. The department has been taking up eviction drives of illegal encroachers from reserved forests and protected forests following due procedures as provided in the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and Manipur Forest Rules 1971 (repealed by Manipur Forest Rules, 2021). Eviction is a continuous process as the protection of forests and wildlife in the State is the mandated constitutional duty of the Forest Department. From October 2015 to April 2023 alone, the Forest Department, Manipur has evicted 413 encroachers from various reserved forests and protected forests in the state. Community-wise, the number of encroachers evicted is 143 Meitei, 137 Meitei Pangal, 59 Kuki (including 21 unoccupied huts in Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi reserved forest), 38 Naga and 36 Nepali.”

It further added, “Eviction of illegal encroachers in reserved forests and protected forests is a continuous process and therefore the question of initiating eviction in Kangpokpi district does not arise. Since 2015 till date no encroacher has been evicted from the reserved forests and protected in Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts. Therefore, the report of the EGI that the demolition drive began in the Kangpokpi district, a Kuki-dominated area, extended by February 2023 to Churachandpur and Tengnoupal districts which is a preponderance of Kuki-Zo community is manufactured and without any basis.”

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The EGI report further said, “What is significant is that the forest surveys, inquiries, evictions, and demolitions were carried out only in the non-Naga inhabited tribal areas, once again leading the Kuki community to believe that it was being singled out.”

Clarification statement by the Forest Department: “As already clarified under para no.2, eviction of encroachers from the reserved forests and protected forests was not only in non-Naga inhabited areas. The eviction drive of the Forest Department, Manipur is not against any community. Encroachers, irrespective of community, against whom no court case or any other case is pending are evicted as per the Acts and Rules. As mentioned in para no.2 above, out of the 413 encroachers evicted from October 2015 to April 2023, only 59 encroachers are from the Kuki community which also includes 21 unoccupied huts constructed inside the Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi reserved forest and the remaining are 143 Meitei, 137 Meitei Pangal, 38 Naga and 36 Nepali. 

The State Government in the year 2019-20 took serious cognizance of rapid deforestation and degradation of forests in the State and its resultant effects. There has been a rapid loss of forest cover, especially in some hill areas of Manipur due to ever-increasing areas under illegal poppy cultivation and accompanying forest fires in the forest areas.

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It is a fact that as per the India State of Forest Reports (ISFR) published biannually by the Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun, the State of Manipur has lost 491.73 Sq Km (49,173 Ha) of forest cover during the last decade from 2011 to 2021, of which 305.96 Sq Km was in Churachandpur District only, which means 80.5% of forest cover loss took place in Churachandpur District. 

The State Government also came across issues of overlapping land records between the Revenue Department and the Forest Department and documents issued by some departments or individuals without authority and in gross violation of the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and rules framed thereunder as well as Hon’ble Supreme Court Orders in WP(C) No.202 of 1995. Acknowledging these issues, the State Government felt the urgency and importance of reconciling and consolidating the boundaries of Reserved Forests and Protected Forests in the State and restoring healthy vegetation in these forest areas by planting tree saplings and protecting them in the interest of the future of the State.

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The State Government of Manipur constituted a State Level Committee (SLC) headed by the Chief Secretary, Manipur on 30.04.2020 with senior officers from the line Department as members to look into the matters pertaining to overlapping of records of revenue villages and forest areas, unauthorized documents issued in forest lands etc and to cause joint surveys of these areas by using modem equipment and GIS technologies with the objective of consolidating reserved forests and protected forests boundaries. At present, joint surveys in the following 9 reserved forests and 3 protected forests have been completed.

Therefore, the report of the EGI that the forest surveys, inquiries, evictions, and demolitions were carried out only in the non-Naga inhabited tribal areas is devoid of any truth.”

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Lastly it also commented on the EGI report which stated “Simultaneously, a state government committee headed by the Chief Secretary on April 1, 2023, cancelled all land/property deeds and recognition of villages within the designated reserved and protected forest area. All this was done without any rehabilitation plan for the evicted tribal population.

Clarification: “The photograph under the caption ‘Smoke rises from a Kuki house on 5 May’ is the photograph of the burning of Forest Beat Office, Mata Mualtam under Churachandpur Forest Division (Churachandpur District), not of a Kuki house as reported by EGI. The forest beat office was burned down by a violent mob on 3rd May, 2023 and an FIR No. 52(05)2023 CCP-PS under Section 143/147/427/436/34 IPC, 3 of PDPP Act has been lodged with the Churachandpur Police Station.

In the violence that is prevailing in the State, 18 forest offices/Inspections/bungalows/Quarters in the Kuki-dominated areas have been burnt down with physical files, documents, maps, furniture, tools, and equipment. FIRs have been lodged with the respective police stations. 

Therefore, the reports of EGI’s fact-finding mission appearing on pages no.3 and 5 relating to the Forest Department, Manipur are manufactured, concocted, incorrect, and one-sided without verification from the Forest Department or any competent authority. Forest Department, Manipur appeals to EGI and any other organization to kindly verify and cross-check any information relating to forests and wildlife before they publish any report in the public domain.”

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