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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

SC directs ‘forest’ be understood as per dictionary meaning

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Union of India to inform all states/UTs to provide a comprehensive record of land that has been identified as forest by the expert committees constituted as per the TN Godavarman judgment and submit before them within two weeks.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, directed that “all the states and Union Territories (UTs) must comply with directions by forwarding the reports of the expert committees by March 31, 2024. These records shall be maintained by the MoEFF and shall be duly digitised and made available on the official website by April 15.

“The Expert Committees which are constituted as per Rule 16 of the 2023 Rules shall duly bear in mind the work carried out by the previous expert committees formed as per the Godavarman judgment,” The court held.

The apex court passed the order directing the states and Union Territories to act as per the definition of “forest” laid down in the 1996 judgment in T.N Godavarman Thirumalpad v. Union of India while the process of identifying land recorded as forests in Government records is going on as per the 2023 amendment to Forest (Conservation) Act.

The bench passed the interim order while hearing a batch of writ petitions challenging the 2023 amendments to the Forest Conservation Act.

The petitioners contended that the expansive definition of ‘forest’ given in the Godavarman judgment has been narrowed down by the insertion of Section 1A of the 2023 amendment, according to which land has to be either notified as a forest or specifically recorded as a forest in a government record to qualify as a “forest”.

But as per the Godavarman judgment, ‘forest’ has to be understood in terms of its dictionary meaning.

According to Rule 16 of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023, the State Governments and Union Territory Administrations, within one year from the notification of the 2023 amendment, shall prepare a consolidated record of forest lands, the petitioners contended.

Since the process is yet to be completed, the petitioners raised the apprehension of lands – which are ‘forests’ as per the Godavarman judgment- getting diverted for non-forest use in the meantime.

The Court was told that the narrowing of the definition would leave out nearly 1.99 lakh square kilometers of forest land from the ambit of ‘forest’.

Taking note of these concerns, the bench passed the following order- The principles under Rule 16, of the TN Godavarman judgment passed by the Supreme Court must continue to be observed and meanwhile the State Governments and Union Territories will proceed with the completion of exercise of identification of the land as forests land.

The court said “As a matter of fact, it is evident that Rule 16 includes within its ambit forest-like areas to be identified by the expert committee, unclassed forest lands and community forest lands. In the interregnum therefore, while being guided by the provisions of the statute and those contained in Rule 16, the State Governments and UT administrations shall peremptorily ensure compliance with the ambit of expression “forest” as explained in the decision in TN Godarman.”

The Court directed the Union of India, through the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, to issue a circular to all States/UTs in terms of the above order.

However, the Court clarified that the expert committees formed as per the 2023 rules will be at liberty to expand the ambit of forest lands that are worthy of protection.

No Zoos/Safaris are to be notified in forest lands without prior approval, the court categorically said.

The court directed that “any proposal for the establishment of zoo/safaris referred to in the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 owned by Government or any authority in forest areas other than protected areas shall not be finally approved save and except with the prior permission of this court.”

The bench said prior approval of the court has to be taken where any proposal for zoos/safaris is sought to be implemented. The Union Government or as the case may be, the competent authority will approach the apex court for the prior approval, the Bench directed.

This was after the petitioners raised apprehension about Section 5 of the 2023 Amendment Act as per which zoos and safaris referred to in the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, owned by the Government or any authority, in forest areas other than protected areas, are excluded from the definition of ‘forest.

Senior Advocate Prashanto Chandra Sen, appearing for some of the petitioners, referred to the zoo-safari project announced by the Haryana Government in the ecologically sensitive Aravalli region, and said that as per the new definition, this area will not be having the protection of ‘forest area’.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Union Government, submitted that the amendments were passed in furtherance of the directions in the Godavarman judgment to protect the forests as per the dictionary meaning.

On November 23, 2023, the Centre had given an undertaking before the apex court that no steps would be taken in respect of the forest, except as understood under the dictionary meaning.

NGOs such as Vana Shakti, and Goa Foundation were among the petitioners One petition was filed by a group of retired Indian Forest Service officers, who raised concerns about the 2023 amendments.

Senior Advocate PC Sen appeared in the petition filed by retired IFS officials. Advocate Prashant Bhushan made submissions on behalf of the Goa Foundation.

The Court listed the petitions for final disposal in July 2024.

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