Centre defends Forest Act amendments for setting up safaris, security projects | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Centre defends Forest Act amendments for setting up safaris, security projects

ByAbraham Thomas
Jan 29, 2024 09:27 PM IST

The Centre in an affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court said that the amendments to the Forest Act do not dilute the wider meaning of forests defined by the Supreme Court in a 1996 order

The Centre has defended the amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, which includes zoos and safaris under non-forestry activities and allows setting up of security infrastructure and projects of strategic importance near border areas and left-wing extremism affected areas, saying that it does not dilute the wider meaning of forests defined by the Supreme Court in a 1996 order.

A petition in the Supreme Court questioned the Centre’s amendments to the Forest Act saying that the exemptions will sound the death-knell of forests in India. (File)
A petition in the Supreme Court questioned the Centre’s amendments to the Forest Act saying that the exemptions will sound the death-knell of forests in India. (File)

In an affidavit filed in the apex court last week, the ministry of environment, forests climate change (MoEFCC) said that zoos and safari activities in forests will sensitise and generate awareness on conserving forests and wildlife and will also add to the livelihood sources of local community, thereby providing them opportunities to connect with the “mainstream of development.”

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It said that setting up security-related infrastructure and linear strategic projects along border and left-wing extremist districts are not “blanket exemptions” and will include specific projects of strategic importance or national security as “identified by central government”.

The Centre was responding to a petition filed by 13 retired public servants led by former Indian Forest Service officer Ashok Kumar Sharma and other petitions filed by NGO Vanashakti among other individuals questioning the amendments.

Senior advocates Prashanto Chandra Sen and Gopal Sankaranarayanan representing the petitioners sought urgent hearing of the matter claiming that the Centre has notified guidelines and rules under the amended Act and the same are being published despite the court on November 29 last year recording an undertaking from Centre that no “precipitative steps” will be taken with regard to implementing the Act. In this regard, they mentioned interim applications filed by them seeking stay of the Act.

The ministry in its response said that the amended Act does not dilute the wider meaning of forests defined by the Supreme Court in a celebrated judgment of December 12, 1996 in TN Godavarman matter. This decision held that ‘forest land’ as defined in Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 would include not only forests as understood in the dictionary sense but any area recorded as forest in the Government records.

The affidavit said, “All forests, including unclassed forests, recorded in record of government, forest department, local bodies, or authorities will also attract provisions of the Act...It is emphasised that the provisions of the Amended Act, in no way, will dilute the directions contained in the order of December 12, 1996 passed by Supreme Court. On the contrary, it will consolidate and codify the law relating to forests in the country.”

The bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra agreed to list the applications on February 19..

Additional solicitor general (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati appearing for Centre told the court that the concerns expressed by petitioners are not correct and the affidavit takes care of the apprehensions raised by the court.

The MoEFCC said, “Activities like zoos and safaris will be owned by the government and government authorities and will be set up on the degraded forest area located outside the areas protected under provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.” This will require approval of the central zoo authority.

It further said, “Such zoos and safaris are generally created in the proximity of habitation to ensure minimum disturbance to the pristine forest ecosystem. Such activities will not only sensitise and generate awareness about the importance of protection and conservation of forest land and wildlife, but will also add to the livelihood sources of local community, thereby providing them opportunities to connect with mainstream of development.”

On the exemptions under the Act for setting up security infrastructure, the Centre said, “Apart from catering strategic needs of the country, the amended Act will improve the social and economic status of forward areas.” The amended Act is “reformative” and “futuristic” catering to “integrated and balanced development” and its provisions “do not intend to legalise any or all illegal activities in all forest lands,” it added.

As per the India State of Forests Report of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), an area of 1.97,159 sq km having tree cover lies outside recorded forest areas (RFA). The RFA includes reserved forests, protected forests and unclassed forests. The Centre said, “The petitioners have misconstrued that unclassed forests will be outside the purview of amended Act....No areas, as envisaged in the said order of Supreme Court of December 12, 1996, will be eliminated or precipitated from the purview of the Act.”

This has been taken care of under the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam 2023 which provides for an explanation on what forests are to be included as per government record. The 1996 judgment also required states to set up expert committees to identify forest areas. The Adhiniyam, notified in November last year, requires states and Union territories (UTs) to prepare consolidated record of such lands, including forest like areas as identified by the expert committees, unclassed forest lands or community forest lands on which the Adhiniyam will be applicable.

The Centre alleged that the petitioners have misused the concept of public interest litigation by approaching the court in a hurry without understanding the true implication of the amended provisions and the accompanying guidelines.

Arguing for stay, senior advocate Sen told the court that despite the assurance given by Centre on the previous date of hearing, no communication has gone from Centre to states requesting them not to take any “precipitative action” while senior advocate Sankaranarayanan stated that if the matter was not heard urgently, it will result in massive depletion of forest cover.

The first petition challenging the amended Act was entertained by the court in October last year. It was urged by the petitioners that by permitting commercial activity in forests, the Act ignores the associated negative impacts on forests and wildlife with the creation of permanent structures, access roads, power transmission lines and other supporting infrastructure for such zoos and safaris. It further said, “Each diversion of land, without any cumulative ceiling being prescribed across the country, will pockmark our forests with cancerously growing deforested islands and fragment them, causing enormous ecological loss.”

Under the changes that received Presidential assent on August 4 last year, forest land up to 10 hectares is exempt from scrutiny under the Act if it is being proposed to be used for construction of ‘security related infrastructure’ with there being no clarity on what it would include. “These kinds of exemptions will sound the death-knell of forests in India,” the petition said.

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