ISLAMABAD  -   Environment Law Attorney Qazi Athar Ali on Wednesday alleged that the status of forest land of 2,858,748 acres was changed into revenue land on directives of former president Asif Ali Zardari for the purpose of allotting the same to landless women and ‘potential investors’.

He claimed that summary of the said status conversion was moved by Sindh Board of Revenue without taking the Sindh Forests and Wildlife Department on board in violation of rules of business.

He alleged that on directives of then president Zardari, then Chief Minister Sindh signed the summary and converted status of riverine forests and total statutory protected forest land measuring ‘2,858,748 acres’ in revenue land.

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“And for that purpose, political influential persons moved their respective lists to concerned department in the fake names of widows; which prima facie proved to be fake before the Sindh High Court (SHC),” he stated.

He made this revelation before a 3-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, which was hearing the matter regarding non-recovery of forest land from the alleged illegal occupiers including the owners of housing schemes.

Sindh has statutory protected 2,858,748 acres of forests land. This land is categorised as 605,583 acres riverine forests, 182,314 acres inland forests and 751,063 acres coastal forests (mangroves) and 1,319,788 acres rangelands.

“Due to shortage of water in river Indus, unkind policies and political influence in Forest department, 90% forest cover has been deforested and almost entire forest land has been illegally occupied for agriculture purposes by political mafia including ministers and public representatives, facilitated by the respondent forests and revenue departments against the doctrine of public trust, stated the petition being heard by the Supreme Court.

During the proceedings, the bench expressed displeasure on non-recovery of thousands of acres of land in Sindh.

The chief justice reprimanded the Sindh government, observing that those not capable to rule should leave the office. He enquired as to why the Sindh government had not recovered the land despite court orders.

Additional Advocate General Sindh told the bench that demarcation of forest lands was being carried out. He informed the bench that 70,000 acres of land was illegally occupied in Sindh.

The chief justice expressed displeasure on performance of Sindh government, observing, “I have never seen such a government that is itself conceding that land was occupied and no action had been taken.”

The chief justice enquired about the decision of cabinet regarding forest lands. Has the forest land been recovered in compliance with the court’s October 30 order, asked the chief justice?

Justice Ijazul Ahsan, another member of the bench, asked as to how the forest land was allotted to the Bahria Town.

The petitioner informed the bench that a housing scheme was allotted 11,000 acres of forest land in Karachi whereas 4,000 acres land was allotted in Nawab Shah. He further stated that Zardari announced allotment of this land to people in 2010 during his speech at Naudero House.

The petitioner stated that the SHC declared the summary approved by then chief minister null and void and cancelled the leases.

The bench was further told that despite SHC orders, no satellite survey was carried out and violating the court’s order, the Sindh government transferred the land to Bahria Town and Omni Group.

The top court directed all the respondents to submit their replies till January 7 and summoned Minister for Forest Department, Chief Secretary Sindh and Secretary Forest Department.

The petition added that the occupied forest land, especially irrigated forest land was under threat to be converted in private land.

The petition further contended that highly influential persons belonging to the political parties with the support of revenue department were managing fake entries in ‘record of rights’ to generate private allotment, showing the forest land as their own land.

The petitioner stated that employees of the forest department were openly selling occupancy of forest land and were facilitating influential political persons to axing the forest cover and to occupy clear land for agriculture purposes, rooting out trees.

“Occupying statutory protected forest land for agriculture is not considered as a crime yet in the feudal society of Sindh. There are several illegal occupiers of forest land who have continually occupied forest land from forefathers and handing over with documents to their next generations like their ancestral property.”

“In every government forest land, even forest cover is being used for political bribe and gifts by ruling party to new comers or those influential persons who have vote bank. Khyberani Keti (Island), a famous forest and wildlife sanctuary, is one of the examples; which was leased out in favour of a politician from Pakistan Muslim League (Functional) as political bribe for joining of ruling party. This statutory protected forest and wildlife sanctuary of Matiari district is about 5,000 acres; now completely levelled just to accommodate influential people and land grabbers; even not to fulfil so-called formalities of nominal payments of lease money.”

“To fulfil these demands and maintain their status, conservators/officials do everything, even selling the forest cover to land grabbers for cultivation. Instead of conservation activities, local staff is being used for collection of kickbacks, wheat and other commodities from forest grabbers. In every season, a target for minister, secretary and every official is being fixed”, the petitioner further stated.