Friday, June 14, 2024

Redefining forest to allow deliberate deforestation?


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By Naba Bhattacharjee


Meghalaya will now have a new definition of forest. A bizarre retrogressive step, which confirms with clarity an approach of “defining post deforestation and before total destruction”. This writer in an article in this column “Missing the woods, for the trees ” dated 3.4.2012, had highlighted a covert move to redefine forest. It is not difficult to comprehend the motive behind such a move. In an era where conservation of forest is the priority, the amendment clearly seeks to obliterate whatever little forest cover exists in the State to facilitate and provide easy access and license to deforest with impunity. This amendment comes after a saga of systematic destruction of virgin mature forests for establishing limestone mining in different locations of Jaintia Hills. Heat generated by such gross violations, mostly by misleading the project proponents, appears to have given the motivation to seek cover by desperately making efforts to redefine forest. The move is to justify the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purpose through NOC granted earlier, projecting all such mature forest as “non-forest” or “private forest” and evading the applicability of FC Act 1980.

Interestingly, United Khasi-Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Management & Conservation of forests) Act, 1958 clearly defines forest as – “… an area where not less than 25 trees per acre, reserved or unreserved or any other forest produce growing on such area which have been or are capable of being exploited for purpose of business or trade ….”. This characterization is considered among the best in the country and comes closest to the Apex Court’s definition after the ban on felling and one which is nearest to the ground reality. The recent amendment has deviated drastically. According to Meghalaya Forest (Amendment) Bill 2012, an area would be considered a forest if it is a compact or continuous tract of minimum four hectares of land, irrespective of ownership, where more than 250 naturally growing trees or more than 100 naturally growing bamboo clumps per hectare are present. Fixing of 4 hectares area as base level of calculation is a clever ploy to exploit the 5 hectare limitation, beyond which central clearance is mandatory under FC Act, 1980. 

There are very few forest areas in Meghalaya to-day with such density of growing stock, particularly in a compact, contiguous block of 4 hectares. Hence, passing of the Act shall give legitimacy to freely destroy almost all available land of forest cover and divert to non forest activities. The intention is clearly to obtain “absolute freedom” over forest areas once such areas come out of the purview of the FC Act, 1980. With a handful of land sharks, acquiring both agricultural and forest land all over the State at break neck speed, time is not far when the majority of indigenous population will lose even their small individual and clan land holdings and be reduced to landless entities in their own homeland.

However, even if the Assembly passes the Bill, it will be in contravention of the Supreme Court’s historic order on the Public Interest Litigation viz T. N Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs Union of India (W.P 202 of 1995), wherein it has been clarified that the word ‘forest’ must be understood according to the dictionary meaning of the term, irrespective of the nature of ownership and classification thereof. There was no confusion regarding the definition in the United Khasi-Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Management & Conservation of forests) Act, 1958 for last forty five years and the same was made more clear and simple by legalizing the dictionary meaning. As a result, large areas under good forest cover which were outside the purview of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 came under the Act. Whereas the present amendment, in contravention to the Supreme Court ruling, takes out large tracts of forest area outside the purview of forest for easy access. This is against the spirit and principle of the Apex Court’s order. It now becomes easier for project proponents to avoid FC, Act 1980, by clearing the land of vegetation first and then apply for NOC, once the stipulation of the amendment is achieved.

In 1998, the Supreme Court in context of the same PIL directed that working plans for all forest divisions shall be prepared by the state governments and would have to be approved by the central government. It was clarified that the term ‘State Government’ would also include District Councils constituted under Schedule VI of the Constitution of India.  Thus, in absence of working plans which contain extensive details of a particular forest area including mode of operation et al,  all land, water bodies etc under control of the three district councils and Forest & Environment Department are forest, pending categorization and approval of working plans. Consequently, NOC etc in matters of forest to make the amendment operative has to be based on approved working plan.  

Moreover, the claim that the amended Act shall not have “retrospective affect” is hard to digest. As a desperate measure to come out from the “NOC quicksand” the High Level Committee constituted by the State Government to enquire into the FC, Act 1980 violations in Jaintia Hill mining areas, was dissolved in great urgency, when it was about to submit its findings. The dissolution was resorted to by interpreting a Supreme Court judgement in IA no 1868 of 6th July 2011, on a retrospective perception although it was more of a suggestion or advisory for the future, open to understanding since it speaks of project proponents claim on status of land being non-forest and desirability of State Forest Department “assisting” State Expert Appraisal Committee.

Another question is why the urgency now?. This urgency and redefining should have been undertaken prior to issuing indiscriminate NOCs in thickly forested areas by declaring them as non forest. The “NOC scam” is sub judice in Guwahati High Court – case No – PIL 41/2012; category 10194(Public Interest Litigations). It is learnt that the respondent has asked for more time to file their affidavit in the last hearing.  It will be interesting to wait and watch if the present amendment is used as a shield for sins of the past or is a weapon to be used to engage in wanton violations under protection and cover of the amended Act. Both shall be catastrophic for the future of forest cover and general state of environment in Meghalaya including the biodiversity status which has already been relegated to abysmal depth.


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