Forest (Conservation) Act and SC Judgement

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What’s in today’s article?

  • Why in news?
  • Definition of forest in India
  • Forest Conservation Act 
  • Background 
  • News Summary: Forest (Conservation) Act and SC Judgement
  • Key highlights of the judgement

Why in news?

  • The Supreme Court told States and Union Territories to act as per the definition of ‘forest’ laid down in its 1996 judgment for identifying and preserving forest land.
  • It asked States/UTs to refrain from using the 2023 amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act.
    • The amendment act allegedly removed 1.97 lakh square km of land from forest area.

Definition of forest in India

  • No clear definition
    • At present, in India, there is no clear nationally-accepted definition of ‘forest’.
    • In September 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) observed that there cannot be any uniform criteria to define forest which can be applicable to all forest types in all states and union territories.
  • Responsibility of States
    • States are responsible for determining their definition of forests.
    • In November 2019, the environment ministry emphasised that the states, having well-established forest departments.
    • They are in a better position, rather than the MoEFCC, to understand their own forests and needs, and should frame criteria for their forests.
    • The prerogative of the states to define forests stems from a 1996 Supreme Court order called the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs the UoI
  • Godavarman Thirumulpad judgment
    • In 1995, T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad filed a writ petition with the Supreme Court to protect the Nilgiris forest land from deforestation by illegal timber operations.
    • One of the aspects of the judgement is related to the meaning of the word forest.
    • In the judgement, the Supreme Court interpreted that the word forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning.
    • This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise.
    • The ruling instructed state governments to form a panel of experts to recognize, declare, and outline areas as forests.
    • It also offered additional instructions on managing forest areas, including transferring forest land for non-forest purposes, as per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

Forest Conservation Act

  • The Forest Conservation Act 1980
    • It was enacted to -
      • protect India’s forests and
      • empower the Central government to regulate the extraction of forest resources (from timber and bamboo to coal and minerals) by industries as well as forest-dwelling communities.
  • Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023
    • Inserted a ‘preamble’ that underlines -
      • India’s commitment to preserving forests, their biodiversity and tackling challenges from climate change and
      • Amending the name of the Act to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam (translated as Forest Conservation and Augmentation) from the existing Forest (Conservation) Act.
    • The Act would only apply to: Lands notified in any government record as ‘forest’ on or after 1980.
    • Exemptions: The Act would not apply -
      • If notified forest land was legally diverted between 1980 and 1996, for non-forest use.
      • To forest land situated 100 km away from international borders and to be used for “strategic projects of national importance” or
      • To land ranging from 5-10 hectares for security and defence projects.
    • The Act specifies some activities that can be carried out in forests, such as establishing check posts, fencing, and bridges.
    • The Bill also allows running zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities.
    • The state government requires prior approval of the central government to assign any forest land to a private entity.
      • The Bill extends this to all entities, and allows the assignment to be made on terms and conditions specified by the central government.

Background

  • Petitions filed in SC against
    • Petitions were filed challenging the amendments introduced in 2023 to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
    • The petitions had argued that Section 1A introduced through the amended Act had substantially diluted the definition of forest to two categories:
      • declared forests and
      • lands recorded as forests in ‘government records’ after 1980.
  • Stand of Centre
    • The government rejected claims of reducing forest coverage.
    • It highlighted an amendment to Section 1A, broadening the definition of government records to include lands recognized as forest by state or union territory authorities, local bodies, councils, or recognized communities.

News Summary: Forest (Conservation) Act and SC Judgement

  • The Supreme Court issued a temporary order instructing States and Union Territories to follow the 1996 definition of forest from the T.N. Godavarman Thirumalpad case.

Key highlights of the judgement

  • Forest will continue to have a broad and all-encompassing meaning
    • SC directed that the expression ‘forest’ will continue to have a “broad and all-encompassing” as per the 1996 judgement.
      • This means it includes 1.97 lakh square km of undeclared forest lands.
    • The Bench emphasized that the broad dictionary meaning of "forest" upheld by the Supreme Court over 25 years ago will still apply.
    • This will continue until the States and union territories compile a comprehensive record of all lands marked as 'forest' in government records, including forest-like areas, unclassified, and community forest lands.
  • Directions to states
    • SC also directed states to file, by the end of March, reports on forest land identified as per its ruling in the T N Godavarman case.
  • Establishment of zoos or safaris
    • The Bench also mandated that no government or authority should proceed with the establishment of "zoos or safaris" without the final approval of the apex court.

Q1) What is Zoo safari?

A zoo safari is a commercial drive-in tourist attraction where visitors can drive their own vehicles or ride in vehicles provided by the facility to observe freely roaming animals. Safari parks are larger than zoos and smaller than game reserves. 

Q2) What is Forest Advisory Committee (FAC)?

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is a statutory body established under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980.


Source: Go back to dictionary meaning of ‘forest’: Supreme Court

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