NEW DELHI: The amendments proposed in the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on Wednesday, will negate the impact of a landmark Supreme Court order of 1996 — known as the Godavarman judgment — that has since been the touchstone of forest conservation in the country.
The order had clarified that the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) is applicable to all land parcels that qualify to be forest as per “dictionary” meaning (deemed forest) thereby filling an important policy gap on how to treat existing forests predominantly of natural origin that are not notified or recorded officially. The judgment has been the basis of hundreds of court orders across the country to extend a protective shield to large tract of “deemed forest” or natural forests, including Aravalis in the National Capital Region (NCR), over the past 27 years.
Government sources and environment analysts told TOI that if the proposed amendments are passed, which seeks to reduce the applicability of the conservation law, over one-third of Aravalis in Gurgaon and Faridabad districts will be opened for non-forest activities. Till now this is not possible because of several court orders that have upheld the conservation of the “deemed forests” such as Mangar sacred grove in Faridabad.
The FCA specifies the mandatory provisions of taking prior approval of the central government for diversion of forest land for non-forest use and this has been a deterrent to rampant diversion of such land parcels for other purposes.
The bill has proposed that the conservation law would be applicable for land parcels that have been “notified” as forest as per the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and for areas that are recorded as forest in government records as on or after October 25, 1980, the day FCA came into force. It also proposes that the law won’t be applicable for areas which have been changed from forest use for non-forest purpose by any government authority authorised by any state or UT government before December 12, 1996, the day of SC judgment in Union of India Vs T N Godavarman. This exclusion will come as a big relief for several residential and instutional projects in Gurgaon and Faridabad.
The bill also proposes exemptions from prior approval for forest land along linear rail and road network, tree and tree plantation or afforestation on land parcels that have not been recorded as forest in government records.
The applicability of the FCA recieved a big boost after the Godavarman judgment, whilch rules that the prior permission for diversion of forest land for non-forest use will be applicable for all areas that qualify to be forest as per “dictionary” meaning. But once the proposed amendments are passed by Parliament, large tract of areas across the country which got this protection would lose the tag.
TOI on March 12, 2021 had first reported how the first Cabinet note for the proposed changes had highlighted how the Godavarman judgement necessitated these changes. The environment ministry had said that till this order was passed, which made it mandatory to seek prior central approval for non-forest use of all “forest” land irrespective of their classification and ownership, the state, UT and central governments used to apply the Act only to forests notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or any other local law and to forests that were under the management and control of forest departments.
It had also cited that because of this there has been a “declining tendency” of undertaking plantations in non-forest land by both government and private entities on non-forest land owing to apprehensions that they may face “hindrance in reaping benefits from such plantations due to applicability of the Act” because of the SC order.
“The amendment does not specify how existing forests predominantly of natural origin that are not notified or recorded will be treated. The Godavarman judgement filled this important policy gap and called such areas meeting the dictionary meaning of forest. Many lakhs of acres have been identified by district level expert committees across the country and accorded legal protection. This is especially important in states with extremely low forest cover like Haryana which has just about 3.6% of forest cover – a significant proportion of which would be covered by the dictionary meaning of forests,” said Chetan Agarwal, an independent forest analyst.

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