About 40 kilometres from Thiruvalla of Pathanamthitta district is Ponthanpuzha, which has 2833 hectares of dense forest land. The forest is a 2 kilometre walk from Perumpatty, a small village.
There are hundreds of small and big houses, and agricultural lands on either side of the road which leads to the forest. The road leads to a spot where a stone is placed to mark the boundary of the forest. Once you go past it, the jungle with huge trees, medicinal plants, and caves unrolls in front of you. Monkeys, peacocks, Sambar deer, rabbits, wild pigs and other animals are commonly sighted in the jungle as are a wide variety of birds.
The Ponthanpuzha forest area includes Alapra, Valiyakavu, and Karikattoor Reserves.
The forest is thriving for now, but sooner or later, it will disappear. After years of a legal war, a Kerala High Court ruled in January 2018 that the forest and the land at its outskirts are owned by 283 private individuals, including a few trusts.
But, how can a forest belong to private parties? It is a long story, which began centuries ago.
To whom does the forest belong?
Hundreds of years ago, Travancore kingdom gave this forest land to a family named Ezhumattoor Kaipaka Kovilakom. In the 1940s, the Kovilakom sold this land to a person named Cheriyath Joseph from Pala of Kottayam district.
Later, Joseph divided and sold the land to 283 different people. Now, these buyers claim that the land is owned by them. Further, in the court, they claimed that the land is a partially forested area without any settlements.
The land is said to have been sold in the 1940s by the Kovilakom to Cheriyath Joseph. However, it has been under dispute since 1904. After the government proposed it to be deemed as reserve forest, Joseph approached the court and the legal battle began.
In 1959, the private parties, including Joseph, got a favourable judgement from a lower court. However, the forest department went for an appeal in the High Court and in 1979, the ruling favoured the government. Later in 1981, the 283 claimants and Joseph approached the court again. The case went on until it reached the Supreme Court. In 2003, the SC asked the HC to consider it as a fresh case and begin the trial.
The history of Ponthanpuzha isn't as simple as the case presented by the claimants in court. Since the government pleader did not object to the claim in the court and the residents who were living near the forest were not fully aware about the case, the ruling went in favour of the claimants.
A few representatives of the 1200 families who are living around the forest have been protesting in a small shed for over 30 days in Perumbatty. It's only recently that these families, most of whom are daily wage workers and farmers, realised that private parties have claimed the ownership of the land in which their houses and farmlands have existed along with the forest.
"It was a shock for us. It is our home where our parents and even great grandparents have lived for the last 150 years. How can the court give them our land now?" asks Annama, who is at the protest.
These families, as Annama says, have indeed been living in and around the forest for the last 150 years. Most of them bought the land by paying money and have also got their agreements. All these years, they have been fighting to get their title deeds. Meanwhile, the government was in a legal battle with private claimants for the forest land and the promise of delivering the title deeds kept getting delayed.
In 1940, the Kerala government proposed this land to be declared as a reserve. Since then, it has remained as a 'proposed reserve' forest.
Speaking to TNM, Santhosh Perumbetty, who is leading the protest, says, "Trees inside the forest are centuries old. We've been living here for several generations. We have protected this forest all these years from poachers and acquisitions. Now, including our homes and this forest land, everything is owned by them."
Recently, the protesters procured a few fake documents made by one of the claimants to sell his 202 hectares of land. The claimant Reghunath Pillai was arrested for forging documents.
"Each and every document with the claimant was fake. The person or the persons who sold the land to the claimants have prepared many fake documents for the sale. Apart from that, the claimants themselves forged many documents and Reghunath's arrest has proved that. In many cases, the village office has given us in writing that they haven't provided any documents to the claimants. But they have many certificates from the village office," Santhosh added.
The claimants possess ‘Neet’ agreements (ancient forms of agreements typically given by kings) as the land was owned by a Kovilakom. Through the High Court order, the agreement was validated and it was ordered that the land was not “at the disposal of the Government”.
However, the original 'Neet' agreement was not produced by the claimants in the court.
“In 1991, the HC had ruled that the documents produced by the claimants were fake. The claimants in their petition said that Ponthapuzha is just a forest with bushes. They tried to misrepresent facts in the court,” alleges James Kannimala, a retired teacher and an environmental activist associated with the protest.
James says that the forest has huge rocks, ponds and a 'kavu' (temple inside the forest). He alleges that the claimants intend to exploit this natural wealth.
“There are huge rocks inside the forest. Since Pathanamthitta is famous for its quarries, these claimants are eyeing the rocks. Apart from that, huge trees, water sources and many more treasures are hidden inside it,” he said.
Another environmental activist, Gopinathan Pillai, who is also a state bio diversity award winner, says that the people who bought the land did not even know where exactly it lay.
“The claimants don’t know where their land is and what its boundaries are. They just paid the money and bought it. Many own more than 300 hectares of land, which is totally against the Land reformation Act. To overcome this issue, they own it in the names of trusts, fake trusts. The aim of this lobby is to loot the forest. A registrar and a document writer helped this lobby make all these forged documents,” Pillai alleged.
He goes on to ask: “When will we understand that forests, hills and water are needed for our coming generations?"
Santhosh further added that the Kerala government had distributed lakhs of trees during Environment Day but that it was not bothered about the lakhs of trees in the forest.
“The government also built a road through this forest, which was totally illegal as it would help poachers. There was a forest outpost inside the forest, which is now in a ruined condition. The government was not interested in protecting this land,” Santhosh alleged.
Plucking a small plant from the ground, 70-year-old Thankappan, a resident, says, “This is a very good medicinal plant. It is a cure for wounds. There are thousands of such plants inside. What will happen if they take over this land?"
If the present HC ruling comes into force, the forest office will also be owned by private parties.
However, the activists say that the fault is not the that of court's, but the forest department and government as they did not produce enough documents to protect the land.
People living around the forest
The 1200 families who have been living around the forest for more than a century are in no mood to give in. They are not only the residents but also the protectors of the forest. However, the claimants projected an image that there were no settlements in the area. It was not even mentioned in court that so many families lived there, and the residents had no idea that they were in danger of losing the land.
“We will not allow anyone to touch a leaf inside the forest. We will not go anywhere from here,” says 60-year-old Moly Thankachan, one of the resident and protesters.
Santhosh says that 90 percent of the families residing in the area don't own more than 4500 sq ft of land each.
“All of them are daily wage workers or small scale farmers. The houses you see now are their lifetime savings. Most of them have been living here for the last five or six generations. They cannot evict us when we are still alive,” he said.
He added that the residents haven’t taken anything from the forest and that they will not allow anybody to loot it.
Legally, the families should have received their title deeds a long time ago which did not happen. Further, a clerical error which listed their land under the same survey number of the forest meant that the claimants had 'purchased' their land along with the ones for which they had allegedly paid for .
Each day, about 20 to 30 people representing different families have been protesting in the shed. The 1200 families take turns to sit in the shed as they can’t sit there always, being daily wage workers.
“We need title deeds, above that, the forest need to be protected. No compromise when it comes to both these needs,” Santhosh concludes.