India has a plethora of laws governing the country’s forests. But strange as this may sound, it does not have any definition of forests and forest land in the two major central acts: The Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Forest Conservation Act 1980.
The legal definition that has been used to date is the one is found in a 1996 Supreme Court (SC) order: “The word forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. This description covers all statutory recognised forests, whether designated or reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2(i) of the Forest Conservation Act. The term forest land, in Section 2, will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of ownership.”
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act, 2006, defined forest along the lines of the SC order. However, for the purpose of the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, India provided this definition: A forest is a land of at least 0.05 hectares with a minimum tree crown cover of 15% and a tree height of at least two metres.
This lack of any single definition leaves a lot of room for the government to use its powers at its convenience and demarcate an area as forest or non-forest. It also creates several other hurdles such as people not being keen to invest in plantations because they would be designated as ‘forest’ according to existing government parlance and become the State’s property.
The Centre has now decided to introduce a new definition of forests.
According to a draft proposal framed by the ministry of environment and forests, only areas notified as forests and those that have a dense canopy will be treated as forests.
This has justifiably raised fears that the new definition will exclude urban green belts and expose those up to unchecked commercial use as no permission will be needed to cut trees. Instead of again going for a blanket definition of forests — much like the previous SC order — the government should have come up with a separate definition for peri-urban and other areas.
This lack of a nuanced definition by both parties could hamper conservation efforts and seriously impact the green cover of the country when India is battling pollution and climate change.