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“Legal Battle Unfolds: Supreme Court breaks silence on controversies surrounding forest land ownership, review jurisdiction, and title disputes”

Case Title: The State Of Telangana v. Mohd Abdul Qasim (Died) Per LRs 

Case No: SLP (C) No. 6937 of 2021 

Dated On: 18th April 2024 

Quorum: Justice M. M. Sundresh and Justice S.V.N. Bhatti 

FACTS OF THE CASE: 

Mohd. Abdul Qasim (died) per LRs. was the respondent, and the petitioner was The State of Telangana & Ors. The case concerned Special Leave to Appeal about a final judgement and order that the High Court for the State of Telangana in Hyderabad had issued on March 19, 2021, which was the subject of an appeal. This case merely revolves around the provisions of The Andhra Pradesh Forest Act,1967 (Hereinafter referred as ‘The Act’) 

 On April 13, 2023, the case was set for hearing before Hon’ble Mr. Justice V. Ramasubramanian and Hon’ble Mr. Justice Pankaj Mithal.  The matter was postponed for a period of two weeks as a result of a letter from the respondent’s attorney requesting one.  

Between 1950-1959, a survey revision occurred in Kompally village. Respondent No. 1 filed an application under Section 87 of the Andhra Pradesh (Telangana Area) Land Revenue Act, seeking rectification of survey errors. The suit land, spanning 106.34 acres, was subject to a notification (Gazette No. 85-B) by the State Government under Section 15 of the A.P. Forest Act, declaring it reserved forest. Despite findings, neither the Forest Department nor the Forest Settlement Officer was involved. The Joint Collector later allowed the plaintiff’s application on 07.07.1981, but its benefit remained uncertain. 

Despite a categorical ruling that the suit property was forest land, an instrumentality of the State took different positions, which it eventually corrected by an affidavit submitted to this Court. Due to the respondents’ differing positions, the impugned decision was able to be given in their favour, overturning the concurrent judgements made by two lower courts based on an assessment of fact and law. The Andhra Pradesh Forest Act was passed with the admirable goals of preserving, expanding, and safeguarding the forest cover. It also included a strong dispute resolution process to address any conflicts that may arise and designated certain areas as reserved forest.  

A Forest Settlement Officer is required by the A.P. Forest Act to be an officer of the Revenue Department, not lower than the level of Revenue Divisional Officer. A notification published in the Andhra Pradesh Gazette allows the State government to designate land as a restricted forest. In order to highlight quasi-judicial capabilities, the Act purposefully avoids designating a forest department officer for this position. 

 

CONTENTIONS OF THE APPELLANT: 

The appellants strongly contended that the Forest Conservation Act defines a “forest” in an extensive manner, encompassing all types of forests. This broad definition would even include private forests within its scope. The implication here is that any land meeting the criteria laid out in the Act could be considered a forest, regardless of its ownership status.  

They emphasised that revenue records alone do not confer title to forest land. In other words, mere entries in official records do not automatically establish ownership. This contention underscores the need to look beyond administrative records and consider other factors when determining land ownership. They asserted that the High Court exceeded its jurisdiction during the review process. Instead of limiting itself to reviewing errors of law, it engaged in a re-hearing, almost functioning as an appellate court. Importantly, it was pointed out that the Respondents failed to establish their title to the disputed land. The High Court’s decision did not address this critical aspect.  

 

CONTENTIONS OF THE RESPONDENTS: 

The respondents vehemently assert that the proceedings before the Forest Settlement Officer have attained finality. In other words, any decisions or determinations made during those proceedings should be considered conclusive. According to the respondents, once title is established, possession naturally follows.  

The respondents argue that the High Court’s review was justified. They contend that an error apparent on the face of the record existed, which warranted re-examination. This assertion challenges any perceived misuse of the review process. They emphasize that there was no attempt to obstruct or interfere with the ongoing proceedings. They also contend that there is no apparent perversity in the impugned order. In other words, the decision made by the court does not appear to be unreasonable or contrary to the evidence. By emphasizing this, they discourage any intervention by the higher court. 

 

LEGAL PROVISIONS:  

  • S.2(f) of The AP Forest Act states the meaning of Forest Officer- “Forest officer” refers to any individual designated by the government or any officer with official authority. 
  • S.10 Claims to certain rights– In cases where the claims pertain to rights in or over land other than those listed below: way, water-course, or water-use rights; pasture rights; or forest produce rights; the Forest Settlement Officer will evaluate the specifics of the claim and, if any, the forest officer’s objections, issue an order either accepting or rejecting the claim in whole or in part and documenting the reasons for the decision.  
  • S.376 Of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908- Any person who feels wronged may request a review of a court decision for good cause or fresh information. 
  • Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 provides for Application for review of judgment. 

 

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND JUDGMENT:  

The court held that this was a classic instance of state officials blatantly abdicating their duty to maintain and preserve the forests as part of their public duties. The court pronounced that they failed to see how the High Court could get involved by relying on evidence presented after the decree, at the request of a party that prevailed alongside the defendant in contest, especially considering that the land is forest land that has been designated as reserved forest.  

The court pointed out 2 instances, or rather, reasons for the lack of jurisdiction, viz,  

  • In relation to an effort to evade the ruling 
  • Acting without jurisdiction 

The court further held that because the plaintiff did not object to the proceedings in accordance with Section 15 of the A. P. Forest Act, the lawsuit is unmaintainable. These are now final and decisive.  

The Court concluded that Due to numerous factual and legal mistakes, the contested judgement is not upholdable under legal scrutiny and thereby, allowing the appeal. 

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Judgment reviewed by- Riddhi S Bhora 

Click to view judgment.