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Why are Unclassed Forests ‘missing’?


In accordance with a directive from the Supreme Court dated February 19, 2024, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) published various State Expert Committee (SEC) reports on its website earlier this April. This interim measure was initiated in response to a public interest litigation challenging the constitutionality of the Forest (Conservation) Act Amendment (FCAA) 2023. A primary concern raised in the petition was the uncertainty surrounding the status of unclassed forests, which were supposed to be identified through the SEC reports, or whether they had been identified at all.


GS3- Conservation

Mains Question:

Analyse the Forest (Conservation) Act Amendment (FCAA) 2023’s mandate with respect to unclassed forests. Also discuss the status of the reports of the State Expert Committees in this context. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

Forest (Conservation) Act Amendment (FCAA) 2023:

  • With the implementation of the FCAA, unclassed forests—previously protected under the landmark T.N. Godavarman Thirumalpad (1996) case—would lose this protection, potentially leading to their diversion.
  • The SEC reports were to be compiled following the court order, which specified that ‘forests’ in accordance with their dictionary meaning and all categories of forests, regardless of ownership and notification status, would fall under the purview of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
  • Consequently, unclassed forests, also referred to as deemed forests, would require approval from the Central government if a project proponent sought to divert that land for non-forest purposes.
  • Unclassed or deemed forests may be under the ownership of forest departments, revenue departments, railways, other government entities, community forests, or private ownership, but they are not formally notified as forests.

Have these Forests been Identified?

  • The status of the reports remained unknown from 1996 until they gained attention again when the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) informed a Joint Parliamentary Committee that the State Expert Committees (SECs) had indeed identified unclassed forests, which had been duly recorded.
  • This statement came in response to criticism that the proposed law undermined the Godavarman judgment and would exclude all unclassed forest land from its scope. The MoEFCC assured the Committee that “the amended Act would be applicable” to the unclassed forests identified by the SECs.
  • However, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application filed on January 17, the MoEFCC stated that it “did not have the requisite reports”.
  • Although the MoEFCC has now made the SEC reports available on its website, they paint a bleak picture: no state has provided verifiable data on the identification, status, and location of unclassed forests.
  • In fact, seven states and union territories—Goa, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Lakshadweep, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal—appear not to have formed SECs at all.
  • While twenty-three states have shared their reports, only seventeen are in accordance with the directives of the Court.
  • Many states have cited the one-month timeframe provided by the Supreme Court as too short, and have stated that “the nature of work [is] voluminous”. As a result, they have not conducted physical cadastral surveys or demarcation of unclassed forest lands.

What Information do the Reports Contain?

  • Only nine states have provided details regarding the extent of unclassed forests. The majority of states and UTs have merely disclosed the extent of various types of forest areas as outlined in the directive, typically those under government ownership, categorized as either forest or revenue land, and occasionally under other government departments.
  • Additionally, almost no state or UT has specified the geographical locations of forests. Any geographic information provided pertains solely to reserve or protected forests, which is redundant since such data is already available to Forest Departments.
  • Furthermore, the SEC reports cast doubt on the accuracy of the Forest Survey of India‘s findings, the sole government agency responsible for surveying and assessing forests.
  • For instance, Gujarat’s SEC report indicates its unclassed forests cover 192.24 sq. km, whereas the Survey reported a substantially higher figure of 4,577 sq. km (for the period 1995-1999).
  • The reliance on SECs without on-the-ground verification is likely to have led to widespread deforestation of areas that should have been identified, demarcated, and protected 27 years ago.
  • However, due to the absence of baseline data from 1996-1997, the extent of lost unclassed forest remains unknown. For instance, Kerala’s SEC omitted the Pallivasal unreserve, an ecologically fragile area in Munnar, which also suffered significant damage during the floods in 2018.
  • The potential loss of such forests is likely to be a recurring issue across all states and warrants further investigation.
  • It is evident that the reports were hastily compiled, utilizing incomplete and unverified data gathered from easily accessible records, and submitted to the Supreme Court merely to fulfill their obligations.
  • The Godavarman order of the Supreme Court was supposed to be implemented meticulously. The failure to do so represents a missed opportunity to fulfill the requirements of the Indian Forest Policy, which aims for 33.3% forest cover in plains and 66.6% in hills.


Enacting the FCAA without thoroughly examining the SEC reports reflects a lack of diligence on the part of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and will have repercussions for India’s ecosystems and ecological security. Those accountable for this oversight must be held responsible, and the national government should take corrective measures to reassess, reclaim, and safeguard forest areas in accordance with the 1996 judgment.

May 2024