Redefining forests, recipe for disaster

There is a fresh threat to the country’s green cover from a new definition of forests being considered by the Centre. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said that the new definition will cover notified forests and those with good tree cover. But it may leave out a good part of what is now considered as forests. In fact, there is no clear definition of forests even now in the country and what exists is a set of guidelines given by the Supreme Court to decide what constitutes a forest and what does not. According to them, about 20 per cent of the land area in the country is considered to be forests. The government feels that the guidelines have caused confusion and there is the need for a precise definition. Its view and the new move are based on the report of the TSR Subramanian committee which has recommended that the laws relating to forests, environment and wildlife should be integrated for better clarity.

The concern is that the definition narrows down the scope of forests as trees on private land and plantations will be excluded. Similarly, the green areas that came up after 1980, when the Forest Conservation Act was notified, will be out of the national forest protection regime. Environmentalists fear that this will also exclude urban green cover. The government also proposes to allow states to have their own definitions of forests, so that those states which have a better forest cover can go in for a narrower definition which will make it easier for them to use such land for other purposes. The overall impact of the new proposals will be that the legal obstacles to cutting down trees will be curtailed and less stringent than now. When the new definition comes into being, courts too may not be able to come to the aid of forests, as they do now. Apart from this, there is also a proposal to amend the Tribal Rights Act in such a way that projects proposed in the forest areas do not require the consent of local inhabitants. This has also raised fears that the present restrictions on the use of forest land may be relaxed.

It is officially claimed that the new definition will encourage creation of forests by the private sector. But this is doubtful. It is likely to make it easy for industrial and other projects to be set up on what is now taken to be forest land. Wooded areas which are considered to be the lungs of some cities may also come under threat.

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