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Losing ground: Lavasa told to return illegally acquired tribal land

Ashwin Aghor | Updated on: 7 October 2015, 18:35 IST

The wrongdoing

  • Lavasa bought illegally acquired land for its township in Pune
  • The land must be returned to its 13 original tribal owners

The defence

  • Lavasa says it didn\'t buy the land directly from the tribals
  • It didn\'t know it was tribal land since it wasn\'t marked as such

The controversial Lavasa township in Pune is losing ground. Quite literally, too.

On 5 October, the court of the Sub Divisional Officer, Maval, ordered Lavasa Corporation Ltd to return about 200 acres of land to the state, which will restore it to its 13 original tribal owners.

Lavasa had bought 25,000 acres of land in Mose River Valley in Mulshi for its Lake City project. Some of it belonged to tribals, who realised that it had been fraudulently acquired.

They approached the National Alliance of People's Movements and with their help launched the 'Save Mose River Valley' movement to take back the land.

"NAPM took up this cause five years ago," said Suniti SR, national convenor of NAPM. "Since the land belonging to tribal people in the valley was illegally transferred to Lavasa, we demanded that it be handed back to the original owners."

"It was after agitations staged by NAPM that the Maharashtra government started investigating the allegations," Suniti added.

The movement had won its first battle against Lavasa in 2011 when the SDO ordered that land acquired from two tribal families be returned to them.

"At that time, we had filed cases for restoration of land to 10 families. Eight claims were rejected because we failed to submit their caste certificates," Suniti said. "The SDO court also ordered Lavasa to bear 75% of the cost of rectification of land records."

In March 2013, NAPM again went to the SDO court, this time with claims of 15 tribal families.

Lavasa has cut millions of trees & diverted natural water streams for this town: Suniti SR of NAPM

After hearing the case over two years, SDO Borkar ruled that land belonging to 13 families was illegally transferred to various individuals who later sold it to Lavasa. The other two cases are pending.

The SDO ordered that the land be handed over to the state so that it's restored to the original owners.

"This is a small but vital victory in the peaceful battle against the injustice," said Prasad Bagve, who represented the tribals in the SDO court.

Crooked foundation

This isn't the first time Lavasa, promoted as an uber luxurious hilltop lake city, has landed in trouble.

The project has been in the eye of the storm since its very conception, mostly for violating environmental regulations.

"The company has caused severe environmental degradation to develop this town. It has not only cut millions of trees but also diverted and restricted natural water streams," said Suniti.

"We have been fighting against Lavasa's illegalities for over a decade now. We have moved the Bombay High Court against it. The matter is currently pending there."

Bagve added, "Recently, we successfully exposed Lavasa Corporation's violations of the Environment Protection Act during a hearing before the state government's Public Accounts Committee."

The land was sold by tribals 15-20 years ago & changed hands 2-3 times before we bought it: Lavasa

Lavasa, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing. "Yesterday, the SDO declared 23.75 hectares of Lavasa Corporation's land as tribal land. The records did not contain the mandatory remark to indicate these were tribal lands under the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code, 1966," the company said in a emailed statement.

"These lands were sold by the allottees 15-20 years ago. They changed hands two or three times before LCL bought these from the latest owner on record. Had their tribal status been known, LCL would have bought these lands with proper permission of the government."

"Besides, Regulation 17 of the Special Regulation for Hill Stations, 1996 specifically states that 'the government shall grant permission to the owner or developer of such project to purchase the tribal land in the project area as per the provisions of the MLR Code."

The company further claimed that the SDO's order won't affect the project. "In any case, these lands are neither under development nor earmarked for any. Their loss, therefore, is not going to affect Lavasa's immediate or future development."

First published: 7 October 2015, 18:35 IST