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Uphold Definition of Forests as per 1996 Judgment, SC Says in Interim Order on Amended Forest Act

It is a “landmark judgment” that upholds the constitution and the principles of democracy, transparency and accountability, experts say.
A forest in Odisha. Photo: Puru150/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Kochi: States and Union territories must uphold the definition of forests as laid down in the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgment until they provide details of all recorded forests, the apex court said in an interim order on Monday (February 19) while hearing several petitions contesting the 2023 amendment to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980.

As per the court’s order in 1996 (popularly known as the Godavarman judgment), any area that meets the dictionary meaning of a forest should be considered a forest and protected under the FCA of 1980 – even if it is not officially recorded as a forest. 

However, the Union government’s amendment of the Act last year would change this and open up vast tracts of forest land (including deemed forests and community forests, which are not officially recorded as forests) to human activities, experts had noted. 

The amendment became law in August last year.

As a last resort, several groups and organisations petitioned the Supreme Court in October 2023 against the law.

In the court’s interim order in response to these petitions, it not only upheld the definition of a forest as specified in its 1996 judgment, but also clarified that forest land cannot be diverted for safaris or zoos without the prior approval of the court.

The interim order also specified that all states and UTs must file the reports of the expert committees by March 31 this year.

“These records shall be maintained by the MoEFF and shall be duly digitised and made available on the official website by April 15, 2024,” as per LiveLaw.

Conservationists called the interim order a “landmark” judgment that upholds the constitution and the principles of democracy, transparency and accountability; one told The Wire that wildlife and ecosystems are “heaving a sigh of relief”.

Dictionary meaning of forest holds

The FCA of 1980 is one of the most important legislations that provides for the conservation of India’s forests in several ways, including by restricting the use of forests for non-forest purposes (such as construction for infrastructure development and tourism).

In March last year, however, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav introduced the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha. This worried a lot of people, from scientists and conservationists to activists and retired forest officials.

A group of retired civil servants filed a petition in October last year arguing that the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 dilutes the definition of a forest – as already defined by the apex court in its judgment passed on December 12, 1996 (in the case of T.N. Godavarman v. Union of India).

As per the Godavarman judgment, as this popular Supreme Court order is known, land that satisfies the dictionary meaning of what a forest is – even if it is not officially recorded as a forest – is eligible for protection under the FCA of 1980.

However, as per the 2023 amendment, the new Act will apply only to lands notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or those that have been officially recorded as a forest on or after October 25, 1980.

This restriction of the definition of forests, for instance, would make it easy for the Aravalli hills (which are deemed forests) in Haryana to be diverted for tourism purposes, activists had argued.

The Haryana government already has, in fact, announced its plans to convert a tract of the Aravallis in the state into a safari project – to, ironically, compensate for the loss of primary forest that will be logged for the international container trans-shipment terminal coming up in the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Dictionary meaning of forest holds

But despite these serious concerns raised by experts, the Act became law – now called the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980 – after both houses of parliament passed it, and after it received the president’s assent on August 4 last year.

With no other alternatives in sight, several groups and organisations filed petitions challenging the amendment in the Supreme Court.

In October last year, a group of retired civil servants filed a petition arguing several points including the fact that the amendment dilutes the definition of a forest as already defined by the apex court in the Godavarman judgment.

The petition also said that as per Rule 16 of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023, states and Union territories should prepare a consolidated record of forest lands within one year from the notification of the 2023 amendment. This has not been done yet.

In response to this (and other similar petitions submitted by NGOs Vanashakti and the Goa Foundation) on February 19 as per legal news website LiveLaw, the Supreme Court passed an interim order.

The bench, led by the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, ordered that states and Union territories must uphold the definition of forests as laid down in the Godavarman judgment until they provide details of all recorded forests.

The Godavarman judgment had also held that states form state expert committees (SECs) and develop reports that quantify and identify forest lands in each state.

However, none of these are in the public domain, and it is not clear if all states have these committees or that the committees have submitted their reports either, Prakriti Srivastava, one of the petitioners, had told The Wire earlier.

“Pending the completion of exercise by the administration of the state governments and Union territories, under Rule 16, the principles which are elucidated in the judgment of this court in T.N. Godavarman must be continued to be observed,” the interim order read, as per LiveLaw.

“As a matter of fact, it is evident that Rule 16 includes within its ambit forest-like areas to be identified by the expert committee, unclassed forest lands and community forest lands.

“In the interregnum therefore, while being guided by the provisions of the statute and those contained in Rule 16, the State Governments and UT administrations shall peremptorily ensure compliance with the ambit of expression “forest” as explained in the decision in T.N. Godavarman.”

The interim order also added that any proposal to establish zoos or safaris “shall not be finally approved save and except with the prior permission of this court”.

“Landmark forest judgment”

Conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra – who is also one of the petitioners against the amendment – called it “a landmark forest judgment” that has protected India’s forests “from unprecedented diversion and destruction” by upholding the dictionary meaning of forests as per the 1996 Godavarman judgment.

“But importantly, it upholds our constitution and the democratic principles of democracy, transparency and accountability,” she told The Wire.

“The order holds the [Union environment ministry] accountable: to place the SEC reports as well the geo-referenced forests as per the Lafarge order in the public domain. Surely the country’s citizens deserve to know where our forests are?

“Significantly, the ministry had assured a parliamentary committee – no less – forests would be protected as per the SEC reports; while their veracity is unknown, even apparently to the ministry itself,” she commented.

MP and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that this was yet another instance of the Supreme Court stopping “another set of blatantly illegal and disastrous Modi government schemes”, after the electoral bonds scam. 

In his social media post on X (formerly Twitter), Ramesh said that the amendment to the FCA “stripped protections from [two] lakh square km of forest”.

“This was in complete violation of a 1996 Supreme Court judgement [sic]. This amendment would have made it easy to divert “deemed forests,” as well as forests in the North East,” he posted.

“The Congress party applauds this order, and commits to protecting India’s forests and environment when we form an INDIA government,” the Indian National Congress leader added.

“The wildlife and the ecosystem of the highly degraded Aravallis in the state of Haryana are heaving a sigh of relief with the interim order from the honourable Supreme Court,” said Neelam Ahluwalia, a forest campaigner working to protect the Aravallis.

“Making a zoo and keeping animals in enclosures in wilderness spaces like the Aravalli range goes against the idea of conservation,” she told The Wire

“We can only hope that the people in power start viewing our hills and forests for the critical ecosystem services they provide and leave them alone instead of viewing them and exploiting them as resources to mine, to build real waste on, to make zoos to earn money from tourism, to create landfills in.”

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