The government is set to introduce a new definition of forests that could exclude urban green belts such as the Mangar Bani range in the NCR and potentially open them up to unchecked commercial use as no prior permission will be needed to cut trees.
Only areas notified as forests and those that have a dense tree canopy will be treated as forests, says a draft proposal by the environment ministry.
This will virtually take out all green areas that came up after 1980 — when the Forest Conservation Act was notified — from a national forest protection regime, speeding up industrial projects.
The new definition will nullify a Supreme Court guideline that brought around 20% of India’s geographical area under the ambit of the forest act that mandates government approval for cutting of trees.
The guideline upset the government and industry because it increased judicial intervention. The ministry now wants a leaner definition of forest for faster project approvals.
“Yes, we will come out with definition of forest soon,” environment minister Prakash Javadekar told a news channel on Saturday. “Notified forests and those with good canopy (tree cover) will be defined as forest,” the minister said, terming it as a pro-environment move.
The first casualty could be the Mangar range, a natural forest in Haryana’s Faridabad, that acts as the lungs for the national capital region but has been repeatedly targeted for big-ticket infrastructure projects because of its proximity to Delhi.
Mangar may not be classified as a forest because of its small spread, a shot in the arm for the Haryana government that is waiting for the new definition to allow residential complexes in one of NCR’s last surviving virgin forest.
Officials say the new definition will also speed up infrastructure development as mandatory approval from the statutory forest advisory committee will not be required to clear trees for widening roads and laying railway lines, including a dedicated freight corridor.
The new proposal would also mean a different definition for forest in each state, depending upon its geographical area and forest density.
“States with better green cover will get more flexibility in forest diversion for allowing projects than ones where forests are in a bad state,” a ministry official said, adding the definition was being fine tuned.
The new proposal will also give freedom to state governments to cut trees for development purpose without any prior approval. But, would result in protection of forest areas with a good tree cover, the official added.
The Supreme Court norm created a lot of confusion in forest regulation and the government wanted to end the ambiguity with a scientific definition, the official said.
A solution was provided by TSR Subramanian committee that said only those green areas notified as forest before October 25, 1980, when the forest act came into force, should be treated as forests and the ministry worked on those proposals.