Maharashtra has lost to encroachers forest area bigger than Mumbai, the Hindustan Times reported on Sunday, citing data that the Union Environment Ministry submitted to the Rajya Sabha in December 2017.

Encroachers have taken over 670 sq km of the state’s 61,579 sq km of forests. Greater Mumbai is 603 sq km in size. Nationally, encroachments have taken up 23% of the country’s land. It is almost 10 times the size of New Delhi, the daily reported.

“Our idea has always been zero tolerance to encroachment,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, the additional principal chief conservator of forest at the Maharashtra Forest Department. “However, we are facing three main concerns when it comes to this issue in Maharashtra – increasing agricultural practices by tribal settlements, construction of religious structures and increasing urbanisation near tier I and II cities.” He said that this was changing the natural biodiversity of forests and eating into the habitat of animals.

Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of World Wildlife Fund in India Ravi Singh said there was a need for detailed studies about the forms of encroachment across different forest areas in the country. “We are fast losing protected spaces and wildlife habitats,” Singh pointed out. “Encroachments around rivers will affect the river flow for years. It is our responsibility to preserve what remains of these areas.”

Singh added that the Forest Department and the political leadership were trying to tackle this matter, but “efforts need to be escalated”.

The officials at the Maharashtra Forest Department said that claims to land under the Forest Rights Act were an obstacle to removing encroachments. “Prior to this, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, did not allow any encroachment,” said Virendra Tiwari, the chief conservator of forest in the state. “There are several cases where the FRA is being manipulated. The entire process to hear claims is extremely lengthy.”