Kerala HC quashes Forest Conservator’s order for being violative of natural justice, directs fresh consideration of matter  

“Water necessary for farmers’ survival”

Kerala High Court: A Single judge bench comprising of Shaji P. Chaly, J. while hearing a civil writ petition against order of forest authorities ruled that while drawing of water from a river in a reserved forest area might require permission of authorities, the same was not illegal inasmuch as it was a protected activity under the State’s ‘vested forest’ rules.

Petitioners – residents of a village located in hilly areas – drew water from Kottapuzha river by installing pipes as it was the only source of drinking water in the area. Since agriculture was their only source of livelihood, water for irrigational purpose was also drawn during specific months. Respondents, residing near lower stream of the river, filed a writ petition complaining that petitioner’s act was causing a shortage of water in their wells. The court, in that petition, directed the forest officials to pass appropriate orders after hearing all the interested parties. However, the officials passed an order directing removal of pipes installed in the river without hearing all the parties. The present petition was filed against this order.

Respondents submitted before the court the land in question was notified as ‘vested forest’ in a notification. It was further stated that despite the forest officials’ order, petitioners had again started laying pipes, which was again removed with a strict warning against persons illegally encroaching into the vested forest. The primary contention on behalf of petitioners was that the impugned order violated principles of natural justice.

The High Court observed that even though as per government notification the area in question was a ‘reserved forest’, but agricultural operations in reserved forest were protected under Rule 7(3) of the Kerala Vested Forests (Management of Reserved Areas) Rules, 1980. However, it remarked that agriculturists might need permission from forest authorities to draw water in a reserved forest area. Further, the court noted that forest officials had erred in passing the impugned order without hearing all the interested parties and as such the said order was arbitrary and illegal.

In view of the above, the impugned order was quashed with a direction to the forest officials to consider the matter afresh after hearing all the parties. The petition was disposed of directing the authorities to bear in mind the fact that petitioners were seeking use of water for drinking and agricultural purposes which are necessary for the survival of the farmers, and accordingly, consider the matter. [Rejilal T.S. v Principal Chief Conservator, Forest Land & Resources,2018 SCC OnLine Ker 4005, decided on 08-10-2018]

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