An under-construction in Bahuni village of Morang district in this recent picture. Locals claim that the house is built by encroaching land belonging to Herbs Production and Processing Center in the village.
ITAHARI, Aug 1: Around a decade and half ago, Anu Shrestha's family in Bahuni village of Morang district moved into a hut built near the Sundarharaicha jungle area leaving behind their home. Locals claim that the family moved near the jungle so that they could encroach the jungle's land and further add that the family indeed encroach upon a prime plot of land located near the entrance of the jungle. The family presently lives in a sturdy concrete house built on the very plot of land.
Kumari Gurung's family who had migrated to Morang from Taplegung also considered the same route to own property. This family also erected a hut on the edges of the same forest and started living there. After a few months in the hut, they too built a sturdy concrete house and became permanent residents of the locality. These are two of the many families, who have built concrete houses on the edge of the forest.
A river passed nearby the jungle. Until a decade ago, this river passed through touching the edges of the jungle. However, now dense settlements of concrete houses separate the river and forest.
"People are building houses haphazardly by encroaching forest area. Who is going to stop that? The land comes for free, anyone would like to occupy it. -Januka Rai, a resident Bahuni village
"We settled here because we got spacious plot for building our home. Our earlier house was built on a very small plot of land," said Shrestha. "We shifted here after the commission said that we could get a piece of land here," she added.
Shrestha here was referring to the notice issued by the Commission of Landless Squatters. In its notice the commission has allocated the area for landless squatters not for families like those of the Shrestha and Gurung. "There are many families like us who live here. It is very cool to live here, we have enough land," she said.
She informed that around 400 families live in the locality, of which most have concrete house. Some of these houses are multistory as well.
As per official reports, 'landless people' have encroached around 19 bigas of jungle's land. The commission had designated this area for relocating 98 families who were affected by the 1978 declaration of Koshi Tappu as wildlife conservation zone. However, there is no official data on the residents of this area. In the past decade, the commission has repeatedly issued notice for illegal residents to evict from the area. However, there has been no effect of such notices and settlement has only thickened.
"First they made a hut of hey and straw. Then they made a better house with the roof of corrugated sheets. Later they build tall buildings. This is how the jungle land has been captured by all well-off people," remarks Chief of Sector Forest Office of Sakalpur, Lal Bahadur Majhi.
According to Majhi, the government must make a plan to reclaim the lost land of the forest. Or else, the trend of occupying forest will only grow.
"If we cannot take action against those who have illegally settled by encroaching the jungle's land, others will also follow the suite. You cannot allow some to do that and stop others from doing the same thing," he said. "Due to the lack of monitoring, the jungle has already gone in the hands of land mafias. Now, that has to be claimed back," he added.
Majhi further stated that around 900 families have settled down in Sundarharaicha forest area alone. There are other forests in the district, which have been shrinking too, because of the same reason.
It is not only the encroachment by families that is contributing to the gradual shrinking of the forest area, there are other actors as well. A number of herb processing companies operating in the area have also been encroaching forest land along with exploiting the forest resources. Such companies initially take land from the forest committee on lease and over the years gradually erecting building. According to a local Januka Rai, there are dozens of houses around the land taken on lease by such companies. Once houses are built, 'the forest department can hardly evict from there' she said.
"People are building houses haphazardly by encroaching forest area. Who is going to stop that? The land comes for free, anyone would like to occupy it," she said. She noted that dozens of new houses are under construction in the area and claimed that the 'owners' have no fear of government intervention or inspection.
Birendra Prasad Shah, chief of Sector Forest Office, Belbari meanwhile stated that it is the responsibility of the Herb Production and Procession Unit to take care of such matters as it is the one who enters agreement with such companies.
"We have already issued notice to the unit in this regard. The unit must do the needful to reclaim the land if it has put it in danger," he said. "If it cannot safeguard the land, it must consult with us," he added.
Another way of encroaching forest land, adopted by some in the area, is registering a certain area within the forest as 'religious forest' that are affiliated to a particular caste of religious groups. There are plenty of such religious forests within the forest nowadays.
Dahal, Giri, Tamang , Limbu, Dhimal and Rai, among other communities have special forest zones. According to locals, they first register the land under religious forest and then started making private houses within the area.
"Caste based communities have been capturing the land as they please. It is very challenging to stop this trend," said Shah.
Meanwhile, Chief of the District Forest Office, Binod Prasad Sapkota claimed that the provincial government is going to draft a new law in order to reclaim the encroached forest.