List deemed forest areas identified by expert committees in a year, say new rules | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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List deemed forest areas identified by expert committees in a year, say new rules

ByJayashree Nandi
Dec 01, 2023 05:37 PM IST

One of the contentious provisions of the new law is that it exempts unrecorded “deemed forests” from the Act

New Delhi: The Union environment ministry has asked state governments and Union territories to prepare a consolidated report of ‘forest’ land as available in government records or are notified as forest under law to delineate areas on which the Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023 will apply.

“Forest-like” areas or deemed forests identified by expert committees constituted in pursuance of a December 1996 Supreme Court order will come under the purview of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023 and will be treated as forests. (Sanjeev Verma/HT archive)
“Forest-like” areas or deemed forests identified by expert committees constituted in pursuance of a December 1996 Supreme Court order will come under the purview of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023 and will be treated as forests. (Sanjeev Verma/HT archive)

“Forest-like” areas or deemed forests identified by expert committees constituted in pursuance of a December 1996 Supreme Court order will come under the purview of the Act and will be treated as forests. This also means that it is up to states now to identify forest-like areas that have not been identified yet by the expert committees but meet the definition of forests as per dictionary meaning. Otherwise, they will not get the forest tag anymore and hence are available to be developed, experts said.

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On November 29, ahead of the opening of the UN Climate Summit (COP28) in Dubai, the MoECC issued a notification on the rules to implement the Forest Conservation Amendment Act which are called the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023. The rules have come into force on Friday.

For the purpose of explanation of government records provided under subsection (1) of section 1A of the Adhiniyam, state governments and union territory administrations, within a period of one year, shall prepare a consolidated record of such lands, including the “forest-like” areas identified by the Expert Committee constituted for this purpose, unclassed forest lands or community forest lands on which the provisions of the Adhiniyam shall be applicable, the notifiation stated.

The draft Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam legislation received the assent of President Droupadi Murmu on August 4 this year. The Rajya Sabha passed it on August 2 after it was cleared by the Lok Sabha on July 26.

One of the contentious provisions of the new law is that it exempts unrecorded “deemed forests” from the Act. Forest governance in India was majorly influenced by a Supreme Court judgement in 1996 in TN Godavarman vs Union of India, in which the court interpreted the meaning of forest as its dictionary definition, expanding the purview of the forest conservation law.

Also Read: Department struggles to protect private forest lands from former owners

The December 1996 judgement said “forests” will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in official records, irrespective of ownership. This brought hope to recognize ecologically rich land that were not recorded as forests in government records but still needed to be protected because they were significant natural features.

The Centre, however, said this created confusion on what would encompass forests and the amendment narrows down the definition, leaving vast tracts of unclassified forests vulnerable to destruction.

“By giving a period of one year to consolidate all records, including of the ‘forest like areas’ identified by the expert committee constituted by the purpose - the rules seem to keep a small window open for final identification of forest like areas. But the open-ended language may be used by states to restrict themselves only to areas already identified. This provision can also be interpreted to include areas identified as forest by joint committees formed pursuant to the guidelines of the Lafarge judgement regarding settlement of disputes regarding forest status of any area,” said Chetan agarwal forest analyst.

The notification on rules to implement the new amendment comes at a time when 11 retired forest/environment and other civil servants and two environmental experts have challenged the new amendment in the Supreme Court.

“The Rules specifically mandate the States and UTs to compile a comprehensive record of forest-like areas identified by Expert Committees, unclassified lands, and community forests subject to the Act within a year. The concern lies in the fact that, as per the Supreme Court’s direction in T.N. Godavarman case from December 1996, States/UTs were initially tasked with preparing these lists for forest-like areas which they had to submit within a month,” said Debadityo Sinha, Lead- Climate & Ecosystems, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy who had critiqued the act.

“However, till date, most states have not submitted these records, nor constituted such Expert Committees. In such a situation, enforcing the Act without the proper documentation of forest lands in the country, while knowing that such forest areas will be impacted the most by this amendment, will have severe consequences for Indian forests. The Centre should have waited for States/UTs to make these records public before implementing the Act. This haste may lead to a fait accompli situation in many forests resulting in irreversible and irreparable losses to ecosystem services and wildlife,” Sinha said.

HT had reported on October 3 that the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 will benefit real estate companies that own land in what was to be declared “deemed forest” in Haryana’s Aravallis, documents show.

For example, in Mangar village spread over 4262 acres (of which 3810 acres is hill area), a large part of land that should have been identified as forest as per dictionary meaning is in fact owned by three private companies.

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