06 Jan 2121

In the case of government lands, mere continuous occupancy for any length of time is insufficient to gain the title through adverse occupation - Karnataka High Court

Case : Smt. Jeanne Pinto v. Deputy Conservator of Forests and Ors. Regular First Appeal No. 988/2013

Court : Karnataka High Court

Bench : Justice B. Veerappa and Justice K. Natarajan

Decided on : 06 Jan 2121

The Relevant Statutes

Articles 48A, 51A(g), 21 of the Constitution of India

Articles 27, 64, 65 and Section 27of the Limitation Act, 1963

Section 80, 96 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

Section 4, 33(2) (iii-a), 64A, 64A-3 of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963

Section 2 of Karnataka Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

Section 71 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act, 1964

Brief Facts & Procedural History

1. The appellant/plaintiff filed the suit seeking a declaration that she has acquired title to the suit schedule properties through adverse possession and a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from interfering with her possession of the suit schedule properties, claiming that the suit item No.1 measuring 18 acres 5 guntas of coffee land in Sy.No.188 and 17 acres 20 guntas of coffee land in Sy.No.189 and suit item No.2 totalling 33 acres 8 guntas of coffee land in Sy.Nos.185, 188, 189, and 229 of Heruru village, Megunda Hobli, Koppa Taluk, Chikkamagaluru District, more completely detailed in the schedule to the plaint inside the purported limits of the plaintiff's Nilgiri Coffee Estate. The said lands are revenue lands, and the plaintiff's predecessors in title planted the coffee plantation with the shade trees about a century ago, and they are now part and parcel of the plaintiff's estate known as the "Nilgiri Coffee Estate," and have been enjoyed as such, as of right, in a peaceful manner and without interference from the Government or any third party to their knowledge.

2. The plaintiff produced a notarized copy of the ADLR, Chikkamagaluru, survey report with the plan attached, as well as an affidavit from the plaintiff's predecessor in title affirming that the plantation described in the schedule to the plaint has been part and parcel portion of the plaintiff's Nilgiri Estate for over a century, and as such, the owners thereof from time to time, including the plaintiff, have perfected title against the Government and, in particular, against the defendants, via adverse possession, prescription, and restriction.

3. It is further contended that the plantation described in the schedule to the plaint has at all times being classified in the revenue records and the forest records as revenue land, never as forest land, as can be seen from the statement showing Section 4 declared under the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963 areas included in forest reserve as per Deputy Commissioner Notification, wherein the plaintiff’s survey numbers are not included; the RTC records showing private ownership of land out of the survey numbers involved in plaintiff’s property; the plan showing levy of T.T fine in respect of the property in the neighbourhood and relating to the survey numbers involved in plaintiff’s property; however, the plaintiff’s portion of the survey number is not involved in those T.T. proceedings; records of right showing that Sy.Nos.185, 188, 189 and 229 are described as non-forest lands and the index of lands where saguvali chits have been freely granted to portions of land involved in survey numbers of the plaintiff’s property.

4. It is further claimed that the plaintiff and her successors in the title have had adverse possession of the State's interest in the suit schedule properties for more than 100 years. When the first defendant sent a notice claiming that the suit schedule properties are forest lands and Government lands and that the plaintiff will be forcibly evicted from the properties unless a satisfactory reply is sent, the plaintiff promptly responded, claiming that the suit schedule lands are revenue lands, not forest lands. Despite this, the defendants are obstructing the plaintiff's peaceful possession and enjoyment of the suit schedule properties and cause of action to file the suit, which began when the first defendant delivered the notice. As a result, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that the plaintiff has acquired title to the plaint schedule property, as well as an injunction prohibiting the government and its officers from interfering with the plaintiff's possession, and a declaration that the first defendant's notice is null and void and not binding on the plaintiff, among other things.

5. Defendant No. 1 filed a written declaration in which he rejected the allegations contained in paragraphs 2–4 of the plaint and claimed that the plaintiff had encroached on 68 acres 33 guntas of forest property. In this respect, the Range Forest Officer of Koppa Range filed a Forest Offense Case in FOC No.22/1999-2000. Following an investigation, the defendant issued an order, requiring the plaintiff to evacuate the whole occupied properties, including any crops grown and structures built thereon, and give over the land within 30 days. As a result, the plaintiff's declaration and injunction lawsuit is not maintainable and is likely to be dismissed.

6. The plaintiff's appeal to the Appellate Authority was also dismissed, according to the argument. The papers mentioned in paragraph 5 of the plaint are from Sringeri Taluk, but the suit schedule properties are from Koppa Taluk and are located in Heruru village, Megunda Hobli. By notice, the area totalling 68 acres 33 guntas was proclaimed a "Forest Reserve" and turned over to the forest department. The plaintiff's documents do not communicate any kind of possessive rights or ownership, and there are no revenue records that reflect her name about the suit schedule properties. The defendant authorities' map from 1992-1993 clearly shows that the suit schedule properties have extremely excellent woody growth and are akin to notified natural forests, which the plaintiff has encroached on. Unauthorized occupancy of forest land for any purpose is prohibited under Section 33(2) (iii-a) of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963.

7. It is also claimed that the Hon'ble Supreme Court, in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India and others, reported in (2002)9 SCC 502, held that "forest" means all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected, or otherwise, and "forest land" includes not only "forest" in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as "forest land." The requirements of the Forest (Protection) Act of 1980, enacted for the conservation of forests and things related thereto, must apply to all woods, regardless of ownership or categorization. No State Government or other authority may make an order directing that any forest land or any portion thereof be utilised for any non-forest purpose without the previous consent of the Central Government, according to Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. As a result, there is no cause of action to file the complaint, and the plaintiff's suit does not comply with Section 80 of the Code of Civil Procedure, and so it is not maintainable, and the plaintiff has asked for the claim to be dismissed.

8. The plaintiff's GPA holder was inspected as P.W.1 and the papers Exs.P.1 to 27 were noted to substantiate the plaintiff's case. One witness was interviewed on behalf of the accused as D.W.1, and the papers Exs.P.1 to 15 were marked. The Trial Court found that the plaintiff failed to prove that she is the absolute owner in lawful possession of the suit schedule properties, that the defendants proved that the suit schedule properties are forest lands and that plaintiff has encroached on them and that legal action has been taken by law; the plaintiff failed to prove that the notice issued by the defendant No.1 is null and void and is not binding on her; the defendants failed to prove that the Trial Court has no jurisdiction to entertain the suit given the order passed by the defendants under the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963; The plaintiff failed to prove the defendants' alleged interference; she also failed to show that she gained title to the suit property through adverse possession, therefore she is not entitled to the relief of a declaration and permanent injunction. As a result, the plaintiff's lawsuit was dismissed by the challenged judgement and decree. As a result, the current Regular First Appeal has been filed.

The Issue(s) of the Case

Whether the impugned judgment and order dated 6 March 2013 passed by Trial Court valid?

The Observations of the Court

1. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru observed that in cross-examination, P.W.1 admitted that the plaintiff's or her ancestors' names are not listed in the papers Exs.P.1 to 7, but that the suit schedule properties are listed as gomala land. It is also agreed that other than filing the claim, the plaintiff did nothing after receiving the notification from the Deputy Conservator of Forests.

2. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that P.W.1 has also testified that he is aware of the proceedings involving the transfer of lands in suit survey numbers between the forest department and the revenue department, but that he is unable to determine how much land was transferred from the forest department to the revenue department and vice versa. He is unable to set limits for the suit survey numbers. He does not know whether the revenue department issued a survey notification to the forest department when performing the survey in 1980. He further testified that the forest department issued the letter referred to in Ex.P.16 and that after questioning it, he filed an appeal with the Forest Officer, which is still ongoing. He refuted claims that the appeal and lawsuit in front of the High Court had been rejected. The witness said that the notice in Ex.P.18 was cancelled, and that the forest department and the revenue department performed a joint survey after that, and that he has supplied papers to prove that the notification was revoked.

3. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that the defendants produced D.W.1's authorization letter as Ex.D.1, the notification as Ex.D.2, RTCs of the suit properties as Exs.D.3 to 6, the survey sketch as Ex.D.7, the order passed by defendant No.1 as Ex.D.8, the FIR registered under the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963 as Ex.D.9, and the Order sheet of the appeal as Ex.D.10. “The suit schedule properties are the forest lands,” D.W.1 deposed during cross-examination, “and in RTCs as per Exs.D.3 to 6, it is not listed as forest lands, but as government land.” It's referred to as "reserve forest land." Nothing has been elicited during defendant No. 1's cross-examination to show that the plaintiff has been in adverse possession of the suit schedule properties.

4. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that Although the appellant's learned counsel claimed that the plaintiff has had the disputed properties since 1930, contrary to the State Government's interests, no papers have been provided to support this. According to Ex.P.9, a survey was done by a government surveyor in 1980 only shows the plaintiff's cultivation of the property as bagar hukum. In 1990, the Karnataka Land Revenue Act was modified to allow for the regularisation of illegal agriculture by landless people. The complainant is not a landless person nor has he submitted a regularisation application. It is also undeniable that the land was handed to the Forest Service, as P.W.1 admitted during cross-examination. According to Ex.P.18, the State Government issued a notification indicating that the suit schedule properties are forest lands. The State Government's notification, admittedly, is not being contested. The plaintiff's name is not listed on the revenue documents that he supplied.

5. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that the plaintiff's paperwork does not show that she has the suit schedule properties, which is true. The plaintiff is claiming adverse possession of the forest lands and filed the suit after receiving notification as per Ex.P.18 proclaiming that the suit schedule properties are forest lands. The plaintiff, admittedly, has not objected to the aforementioned notification. The eviction order issued by the Forest Authorities has been affirmed by the Appellate Authority and further confirmed by the learned single Judge of the Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru in W.P.No.47701/2014 dated 27.08.2019.

6. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that it is difficult for the state and its agencies, including local governments, to maintain constant surveillance and watch over huge swaths of open land that they control or for which they serve as public trustees. No amount of vigilance can prevent encroachment and unlawful occupancy of public property by unscrupulous elements who operate like vultures to seize land, build illegal structures, and, in certain cases, use the State apparatus to have their occupation/possession and construction regularised. When an encroacher, unlawful occupier, or land grabber of public property asserts that he has perfected title via adverse occupation, the Court must proceed with extra caution, care, and caution. Any leniency in this respect may result in the destruction of the State's right/title to immovable property, giving encroachers, illegal occupiers, or land grabbers the upper hand.

7. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that the plaintiff claims to have had uninterrupted ownership of the property for over a century. However, no documentation has been presented to establish her possession, and the plaintiff is an encroacher of forest areas; eviction notices have already been issued by the authorities under the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, and the case is now closed. As a result, the plaintiff has failed to show that she obtained title to the properties on the suit schedule through adverse possession.

8. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that despite the plaintiff's allegation that she has been in continuous possession for 40 years, she is an encroacher of forest land, as P.W.1 conceded under cross-examination, as indicated. In light of the provisions of Section 2 of the Karnataka Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the dicta of the Hon'ble Supreme Court in the matter of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India and others, reported in (2002)9 SCC 502, a trespasser cannot claim adverse possession against government territory, much alone reserve forest land.

9. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that All of the suit schedule holdings, totalling 68.33 guntas, are unquestionably government lands. According to the petitioner, she has been enjoying the government-owned property for over a century. Although the original authority passed an eviction order under Section 64A of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, which was confirmed by the appellate authority and Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru, the government authorities acting under the provisions of the Land Revenue Act or the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963 have not discharged the suit schedule lands as forest lands. As a result, important members of society are increasingly becoming land grabbers of government lands. It is well known that the authorities are pursuing little fishes, i.e., those that infringe on small plots of land, such as 1 or 2 acres. They don't care if whales intrude on more than 50 acres of land. Appellant has admittedly encroached on 68 acres and 33 guntas of government land in this case. It is past time for government officials to reflect on their responsibilities to the general public and the nation, as well as their responsibility to safeguard government property. Holding greater positions in the state becomes worthless otherwise.

10. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru also observed that it is well established that every public servant is a trustee of the Society, and every public servant must demonstrate honesty, integrity, sincerity, and faithfulness in the implementation of political, social, economic, and constitutional policies to integrate the nation and achieve excellence and efficiency in public administration. A public worker should be transparent in his or her execution and accountable for the proper implementation of constitutional aims. Although the Supreme Court in the case of T. N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India and others, reported in (2002)9 SCC 502, established rules for safeguarding forest lands, state officials have been passive bystanders, allowing land grabbers to encroach on government property, particularly forest areas. As a result, it is past time for successive administrations to reflect on their actions and adopt rigorous steps to safeguard federal lands. Otherwise, the State's forest areas will vanish one day, and nature's ecological imbalance will destroy society.

11. Every individual or state has a responsibility to protect and improve the environment, as well as to safeguard the country's forests and wildlife, as outlined in Article 48A of the Indian Constitution, which calls for environmental protection and improvement, as well as the safeguarding of forests and wildlife. The state will work to conserve and develop the environment, as well as the country's forests and animals. According to Article 51A(g) of the Indian Constitution, every Indian citizen has a responsibility to conserve and develop the natural environment, which includes forests, lakes, rivers, and animals, as well as to have compassion for living beings. It is firmly established that, under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, not just humans but all living things have a basic right to exist in dignity. The Indian Constitution recognises their right to life as well.

The Decision Held by the Court

1. Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru held The Trial Court's challenged decision and decree are correct and appropriate. The plaintiff has not established any basis for interfering with the same in the exercise of the Honourable High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru's appellate authority.

2. As a result, the Regular First Appeal is rejected as without merit and costs are waived.

3. The Officer not below the level of Assistant Commissioner, who shall be nominated by the District Collector (DC), Chikkamagaluru, is instructed to take possession of the lands in issue from the appellant and to use sufficient force if necessary.

4. A copy of this Order will be submitted to the Chief Secretary of the Government and the Principal Secretary of the Forest Department, who will take the necessary actions to preserve government lands.

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