City anchor: Forest dept digs heels in, won’t allow encroachers to return

With the new year approaching, the forest department is gearing to get its boots dirty and dig trenches to safeguard its land from encroachers. With 2,232 illegal structures, incsluding shanties, huts and pucca houses, razed so far, the department has now spread its patrolling to prevent these structures coming up on its land again.

The eviction-and-demolition drive follows a Bombay High Court order. On Sunday, 10 hectares of fresh land was officially restored after the drive. The campaign of reclaiming the forest land started 10 days after the festive season in November, when slumdwellers were asked to produce documents to prove their legal status.

According to an HC order, only those who had settled before 1995 could stay on the premises. "We found illegal cowsheds, commercial shops and others operating from such structures. Most of them did not have the papers," says Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forests and director, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).

Officials of the rank of foresters and guards moved through these slums and marked the illegal structures. With December 31 set as the deadline for removing 3,500 unauthorised structures, Limaye said the drive is reaching its target. "We felt the pressure as many of them throw political clout. Now winter session is over too, and there could be some noise," he said.

The department has so far identified and marked 8,000 unauthorised huts and structures for demolition. "We will begin the next phase of demolition in February. January will be for clearing debris and digging trenches. We will then begin planting in these trenches to ensure that slumdwellers don't build new houses here," he added.

The department has also taken patrolling over the "rescued land" seriously. "We have made teams that will watch over these areas. The people whose homes have been demolished are still around. We want to send out a strong message. The management is going tooth and nail after unauthorised hutments. Earlier, they would just shift from one sector to another. This time, we are not allowing them access to the forest," he said.

The drive started on December 1, following a survey by the forest department of areas around the park in Malad, Kandivali, Borivali, Dahisar and Mulund and marked unauthorised occupants. In November, 300 huts of people eligible for rehabilitation were demolished and they are being provided alternate accommodation. This week, the department will also look to put up fences around the periphery of Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpripada in Malad (East).

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