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A welcome judgement

It is an interim measure till the court takes a detailed and final view of it. The relief may not be real in all cases because even now forests which conform to the dictionary definition can be diverted with prior approval of the central government.
Last Updated 21 February 2024, 22:26 IST

The Supreme Court’s interim order that the Union government must use the “dictionary definition” of forests in the process of identifying forest land in all states will help to contain the damage done by the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act (FCA) enacted in 2023. The order brings temporary relief against actions under the amended law which has sought to reduce the protection offered to forest land by narrowing the definition of forests to only classified forests. Under the law, forest lands can be diverted for non-forest use and commercial purposes without prior approval. Upholding the landmark ruling in the T N Godavarman case of 1996, the court said that any land that fits the dictionary definition of forests should be identified and protected.

The order was in response to writ petitions filed by several groups, including the NGO Vanashakti, Bengaluru, challenging the constitutional validity of the FCA, 2023. The FCA defined forests as only those lands that have been notified or recorded as forests in the Indian Forest Act, or any government records after 1980. This excluded a sizeable chunk of forests and opened them up for exploitation. According to the petitioners, this would lead to the declassification of 1.97 lakh sq km of land deemed as forest (under the 1996 SC order) but not notified so, and expose them to potential exploitation. The rules framed under the Act came into effect on December 1, 2023. They mandated all states and Union Territories to identify and prepare a record of all forest lands within one year of the notification of FCA, 2023. The new law had caused much concern because it went against the need to preserve the forest and to create new forests. The law even gives legal sanction for destruction of forests on various grounds. 

The Godavarman ruling said that the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was enacted to conserve forests and applied to all forests, regardless of whether they are classified as such. This would now be the guiding principle governing identification of forests. It is an interim measure till the court takes a detailed and final view of it. The relief may not be real in all cases because even now forests which conform to the dictionary definition can be diverted with prior approval of the central government. The amendment allowed for zoos and safaris to come up in forest land other than protected areas without any prior permission. The court directed that any such proposal should not be approved without its permission. The final hearing of the case is in July and hopefully, the court will correct for good the dilution of the definition made by the new forest law. 

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(Published 21 February 2024, 22:26 IST)

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