According to assessments of the latest Indian State of Forest Report, 2019 the total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.73 million h.a which is 24.56% of the geographic area of the country. We could see the incremental increase in the forest and tree cover in every biennial report of the Forest Survey of India. For better understanding of these facts, one should know what all is considered as forests in India. To answer this we have to go back to 1980. The Parliament of India enacted a very famous legislation, The Forest Conservation Act (1980), that took departure from earlier colonial perspective of forest management to real conservation.
The Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, while laying down provisions for forest conservation, does not clearly define what constitutes a forest. Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act (1980) put restrictions on the State Government for dereservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purpose. So, what if the land is owned by private individuals or local bodies that also look like forests? Don’t it fall under the criteria of conservation and protection under FCA, 1980? Like the recent instance of felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey colony for metro car shed on the pretext that it isn’t officially classified as forest.
Here comes into the picture the famous Godavarman Vs Union of India Case, 1996. In 1995, T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad filed a writ petition with the Supreme Court of India to protect the Nilgiris forest land from deforestation by illegal timber operations. In 1996, the Supreme Court interpreted the word forest by its dictionary meaning. According to this new broader definition, any forest thus defined, regardless of ownership, would be subject to Section 2 of the FCA. Besides interpreting the word of ‘Forest’ the court also in its judgement suspended tree felling across the entire country with minor exceptions. This case also lead to the establishment of concept of imposition of Net present Value, CAMPA fund establishment, etc.,
In its December 12, 1996, order, the Supreme Court required the states to form a committee to survey forest lands and determine which areas are and are not forests. However many states haven’t come up with the definition of forests or determined which areas could be kept under forests as per new definition. This has affected in many ways like commercial felling, tackling encroachment, delivering Forest Rights claims, etc.,
However, some states like Gujarat consider patches of land, which has an area of two hectares and has 50 trees to be a forest. Uttarakhand defined ‘deemed forests’ as a land patch of 10 h.a. Or above with 60 % canopy density and 75 % of native species.
One size fits all definition is best avoided considering the diversity of forest in India. Recognizing this, we need to incorporate a definition that assimilates the diversity of India’s forests for better forest management with more predictability and transparency.
(All views expressed are personal)
Ramsundar, Indian Forest Service (P), Founding Editor of The Agraria. Follow him at Instagram @Ram_sundar_ifs