Read Judgment: State Of Kerala & Anr. vs. M/s Popular Estates (now Dissolved) & Anr

Pankaj Bajpai

New Delhi, November 5, 2021:The Supreme Court has noted that as per Section 2(1)(i)(B) of Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971, lands used principally for cultivation of certain crops and lands used for construction of buildings for the purpose of running and maintaining a plantation are excluded from the definition of “private forest”. 

A Division Bench of Justice Indira Banerjee & Justice S.Ravindra Bhat therefore observed that the judgment of Kerala High Court holding that an area of slightly over 402 acres (i.e., 100 hectares and 155.90 acres) vested in the State of Kerala and the rest of the land (of a total 1534.40 acres) had to be treated as plantation, and thus, belonged to the Popular Estates (respondent), called for no interference.  

The background of the case was that, pursuant to coming into force of Vesting Act, 1971, the forest authorities attempted to take possession of large areas of land occupied by respondent, arguing that they were private forests and had vested in the state, under the Act. 

The respondent then approached the Forest Tribunal claiming a declaration that no part of the estate consisting 1534.40 acres was liable to vest in the state. Since it was being cultivated and hence, it was exempt under the provisions of the Vesting Act. The state however opposed those applications. 

The Tribunal opined that areas which should really be vested forest have been excluded, when the claim was confined to 100 hectares. After orders of the tribunal, forest authorities attempted to take possession of the land. In the meanwhile, the state also issued notification no. 4713/1977 notifying 100 hectares of the respondent estate as private forest, based on a survey undertaken by the forest department. 

When the matter reached High Court claiming that the state be permanently injuncted from taking possession of the land belonging to the respondent, the High Court answered the issue in favour of the respondent by observing that the entire area other than the 100 hectares of land earlier notified by notification dated July 8, 1977 were not private forests on the appointed date but exempted in view of the definition of private forest. Hence, present appeal before the Apex Court. 

After considering the evidence and submissions, the Apex Court opined that state’s contention that as Popular Estates had mentioned in its petition that a certain area was forest (since it was so, by virtue of provisions of the Madras Act) therefore, did not preclude the respondent’s contention that no vesting could take place; whether the lands were “forest” or cultivated plantations or estates, for the purposes of Section 2(f)(1)(i)(B) of the Vesting Act, especially whether they stood excluded from operation of that Act, had to be considered independently. 

The Apex Court further found that the Tribunal entirely rejected the evidence of the Forest Range Officer, who gave the memorandum to the Commissioner on September 1, 1977, and wholly discredited and brushed aside the evidence of this officer and viewed it with suspicion. 

This was clear from the repeated use of the phrase “magic money” suggesting that the Forest Officer was devious and had been bribed, added the Court. 

The title deeds of the predecessor-in-interest of the partners of the Popular Estates who had acquired the lands in 1963, show that large areas were shown as cardamon plantation. Popular Estates had filed agricultural income returns and even in 1970, it was producing coffee, rubber and cardamom. The fact that it had some labour trouble also supported its contention that Popular Estates’ plantation activities were on in full scale. All these materials, in the opinion of the court, support the conclusions of the High Court, which are based on plausible (and not an unreasonable) inference of the overall analysis of the evidence on the record”, observed the Top Court. 

The Top Court therefore refused to interfere in the findings of the High Court and dismissed the appeals. 

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