Pathanamthitta: The Ponthanpuzha forest area has turned into the turf of an ownership dispute. At least 283 people have staked claim to the dense forest, which they claim has been awarded to their ancestors by a local royal family.
Acting on their request, a court has ruled that Ponthanpuzha cannot be declared as a reserve forest. The government, however, has appealed the lower court verdict before the Kerala High Court. The court has not asked the government to hand over the forest area to the litigants.
The Ponthanpuzha forest area stretches over 7,000 acres from Mandamaruthi Pallippadi to Alappra over Ranni and Mallappalli taluks. The litigants claim that the original owners of the forest, the Ezhumattoor kovilakam, had granted them rights over the land.
About 1,200 families live on the fringes of the forest at Alapra, Valiyakavu, Ponthanpuzha Nedumbram, Chathuppu, Pulikkan Para and Perumbetty. They trace their association with the area before the Kerala Forest Act of 1961 and even the Travancore Forest Act of 1893.
Most of these families have been living in the area for five generations, even before the government connected the area with electricity, water supply and motorable roads. They had never received title deeds to the land they live in even after the area became crowded with multi-storeyed buildings.
Their claims have bumped into a legal hurdle. The forest land and the land they hold bear the same survey number. Though separate survey numbers had been assigned in 1991, the changes do not reflect in documents before the court.
The plots were assigned the same survey number during the forest settlement of 1960 in a bid to claim ownership of the forest, officials suspect. The land sharks are hovering around the Ponthanpuzha area. Many claimants have been lobbying in the local village office and taluk office even as the dispute is pending before the court. Their attempts were thwarted thanks to the coordinated efforts of a council formed to protect the forest.
Hotspot of biodiversity
The Ponthanpuzha forest is a treasure trove of biodiversity. The invaluable natural riches can be tapped for tourism development too. The forest is crowded with teak, mahogany and other trees typical of a dense jungle.
The forest is bereft of big mammals such as elephant, tiger and gaur but boars and foxes and Malabar squirrels are abound. The forest also houses the remains of ancient temples. Though the forest department tried growing tobacco in the area, the plants withered for want of adequate care.
The adjoining areas are assured of drinking water round the year thanks to the numerous ponds and streams in the forest.
Local residents under the banner of Ponthanpuzha-Valiyakavu Forest Protection Council have launched an indefinite strike seeking title deeds for their land. Environmental activists from various parts of the state took part in the inauguration of the strike on May 12.