Why are ‘Unclassed’ Forests Missing


12:29 PM

1 min read
Why are ‘Unclassed’ Forests Missing Blog Image

What’s in today’s article?

  • Why in News?
  • What are Unclassed Forests?
  • What does the FCAA Stipulate wrt Unclassed Forests?
  • Why are ‘Unclassed’ Forests Missing?
  • Consequences of Missing Forests and Way Ahead

Why in News?

  • In compliance with a Supreme Court order, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) uploaded the various State Expert Committee (SEC) reports on its website.
  • This interim order was in response to a PIL challenging the constitutionality of the Forest (Conservation) Act Amendment (FCAA) 2023.
  • A key concern in the petition was the status of unclassed forests (either not known or not identified at all), which were to be identified by the state SEC reports.

What are Unclassed Forests?

  • Unclassed or deemed forests may belong to forests, revenue, railways and other government entities, community forests or those under private ownership, but are not notified.
  • The unclassed forests had legal protection under the landmark case - T.N. Godavarman Thirumalpad (1996).
    • It specified that ‘forests’ as per their dictionary meaning and all categories of forests irrespective of ownership and notification status would be included under the ambit of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
  • The SEC reports were to be prepared in pursuance of the order. SECs were to identify all such forests across the country through
    • Available records i.e. Forest Working Plans, Revenue land records, etc., and
    • By physical identification of any land patch having the nature of forests as per dictionary meaning regardless of its ownership.
  • As a result, unclassed forests would also require the Central government approval in case a project proponent sought to divert that land for non-forest use, after multiple other layers scrutiny.

What does the FCAA Stipulate wrt Unclassed Forests?

  • The FCAA amends the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 (FCA), which provides that
    • The dereservation of reserved forests,
    • Use of forest land for non-forest purpose,
    • Assigning forest land by way of lease or otherwise to private entity and
    • Clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reafforestation requires prior permission of the Central Government.
  • The FCAA amends the FCA to make it applicable to certain types of land. These include land notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect.
  • However, the FCAA excludes two categories of land from its purview:
    • Land recorded as forest before October 25, 1980 but not notified as a forest, and
    • Land which changed from forest-use to non-forest-use before December 12, 1996. 
  • This provision may go against the 1996 SC judgement on preventing deforestation.
  • Hence, with the enactment of FCAA, the unclassed forest would lose protection provided after the SC’s 1996 verdict, leading to their inevitable diversion.

Why are ‘Unclassed’ Forests Missing?

  • According to the SEC reports uploaded on the website of MoEFCC, no state has provided verifiable data on the identification, status, and location of unclassed Forests.
  • In fact, 7 states and UTs - Goa, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Lakshadweep, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal - appear not to have constituted the SEC at all.
  • Most states have either used existing forest and revenue department data, some (like Manipur and Sikkim) have merely quoted figures from the Forest Survey of India (FSI).
    • The SEC reports also question the veracity of the reports of the FSI, the only government agency to survey and assess forests.
    • A striking example comes from Gujarat, whose SEC report says its unclassed forests cover 192.24 sq. km while the Survey has reported the significantly higher 4,577 sq. km (1995-1999).
  • Also, almost no state or UT specified the geographic locations of forests.

Consequences of Missing Forests and Way Ahead:

  • The treatment of SECs without on-ground verification is likely to have resulted in the large-scale destruction of forests, which ought to have been identified, demarcated and protected 27 years ago (after 1996 verdict).
  • Promulgating the FCAA without examining the SEC reports displays a lack of diligence on the MoEFCC’s part and will have terrible consequences for India’s ecosystems and ecological security.
  • Those responsible need to be held to account and the national government needs to take ameliorative action to re-identify, retrieve and protect forest areas as per the 1996 judgement.
  • The failure to do this is a lost opportunity to achieve the requirements of the Indian Forest Policy, which envisages 33.3% forest cover in plains and 66.6% in the hills.

Q.1. What is the Forest Survey of India (FSI)?

Founded in 1981 and headquartered at Dehradun (Uttarakhand), FSI is the organisation (under the MoEFCC) which conducts forest surveys to periodically monitor the changing situations of land and forest resources, enabling their national planning, conservation and sustainable management.

Q.2. Why was the Indian Forest Act 1927 enacted?

The Indian Forest Act 1927 sought to consolidate and reserve the areas having forest cover, or significant wildlife, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.

Source: Why are ‘Unclassed’ Forests Missing?