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Clarity on the Nature and Extent of ‘Deemed Forest’ is Essential

Context:

The Supreme Court of India has temporarily halted an ambitious effort by the Central government to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, which was initially introduced to curb the extensive destruction of forests for non-forestry purposes. The Central government claimed that approximately four million hectares of forest land had been diverted between 1951 and 1975 and the act was brought in this light.

Relevance:

GS3- Environment

Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment.

Mains Question:

Discussing the concept of ‘deemed Forests’, analyse why a thorough clarity on the nature and extent of ‘deemed forest’ is essential. (10 Marks, 150 Words).

Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980:

  • The Act mandated that forests could not be diverted without adhering to a regulatory mechanism established by the Central government.
  • The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 is applicable to various types of forests, regardless of whether they fall under the jurisdiction of the Forest or Revenue Department.
  • It mandates obtaining statutory clearance before utilizing forests for non-forest activities, such as industrial, mining, or construction purposes.
  • In 1976, forests were added to List III (Concurrent List) within the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.
  • The government considers the Act successful, noting that from 1981 to 2022, the average annual diversion of forest land decreased to about 22,000 hectares, roughly one-tenth of the previous rate from 1951 to 1975.
  • However, the Act primarily applied to forest tracts officially recognized as such by the India Forest Act or other State legislation.
  • The illegal timber-felling incident in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, led to the influential T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad judgment, in which the Court expanded its perspective on forest tracts deserving protection. The judgment emphasized the need to safeguard forests regardless of their classification or ownership.
  • This introduced the concept of “deemed forests,” referring to areas not officially classified as such in government or revenue records. States were instructed to establish expert committees to identify these “deemed forests.”

Deemed Forests:

  • Definition: ‘Deemed forests’ pertain to areas that official records do not formally classify as forests by central or state authorities.
  • Legal Ambiguity: The term ‘deemed forests’ lacks a precise legal definition, even within the framework of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
  • Broad Interpretation: The Supreme Court’s T N Godavarman Thirumulpad Case (1996) adopted a comprehensive interpretation of forests, encompassing those statutorily recognized, irrespective of their reservation status under the Forest Conservation Act.
  • Inclusive Scope: As per the court, ‘forest land’ within Section 2 of the Act extends beyond its literal meaning to include areas documented as forests in government records, regardless of ownership.
  • However, in the 28 years since the judgment, only a few states have formed such committees or disclosed the extent of “deemed forests” within their territories.

Recent Relevance and Controversy:

  • News Spotlight: The matter of ‘deemed forests’ has garnered attention, particularly in Odisha and Karnataka, where concerns about unscientific classification and potential impacts on agriculture and mining persist.
  • Calls for Reclassification: Advocates argue that ‘deemed forests’ should align with the dictionary meaning of forests, regardless of ownership. Concerns have been raised about arbitrary classifications affecting farmers and mining activities.
  • Classification Challenges: Critics contend that the current subjective classification lacks a well-defined scientific criterion, leading to conflicts and hardships for communities.

Rationale Behind the Amendment of the Forest (Conservation) Act:

  • The Central government’s effort to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act was ostensibly aimed at providing “clarity” due to the extensive use of recorded forest land for non-forestry purposes, authorized by State governments.
  • The government asserts that private individuals are hesitant to cultivate private plantations and orchards, despite their significant ecological benefits, fearing that such areas might be labeled as ‘forest,’ leading to the nullification of their ownership. India’s goal of creating a carbon sink of 2.5 billion-3 billion tonnes to achieve net-zero targets requires adaptable forest laws.
  • Consequently, the amendments aim to exclude areas not already designated as ‘deemed forest’ from protective measures.
  • This has resulted in numerous public interest petitions, as the amendments seem to challenge the Act’s goal of forest protection.
  • While a final judgment is pending, the Court has directed the Central government to compile and publicly disclose, by April, the efforts made by States in recording the extent of deemed forests, a move that is positively acknowledged.

Conclusion:

At this stage, the Central government’s assertion that insufficient private initiative is hindering India’s carbon sink is speculative. A thorough and unbiased evaluation of the ground realities is essential to advance this crucial debate.


June 2024
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