Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Environment Day & Indifference to Forest Management & Protection

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By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh

This year the World Environment Day falls just a day after the declaration of the Lok Sabha elections results. The two newly elected Members of Parliament from Meghalaya will deliberate on various subjects that concern the State and the Nation. Will environmental issues be the priority for them? Or will other issues take precedence?
Environment Day Rituals:
The degraded state of the environment is very alarming and unless some radical measures are taken by every stake holder to arrest this environmental decay, we the Hynñiewtrep and Achik people are heading for a disaster sooner than we thought. Nonetheless, Government ministers and officials will still perform their rituals and give pep talks on how to manage and preserve the commons and forests. Also, they will scare us away with their hyperbole and experiences in some G20 summits or Climate Change Conferences which they had attended somewhere in the Universe at the expense of public money, but at the same time lack the commitment to protect and restore our environs which we borrowed from our children.
The Landmark Decision on the Ban of Felling
of Trees:
In 1996, the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) along with other citizens, like Kong Patricia Mukhim etc., were co-petitioners seeking a 10-year ban on tree felling and export from Meghalaya in the Shillong Bench of the Gauhati High Court. Simultaneously, the same matter pertaining to forest and environment degradation was filed and heard by the Supreme Court of India in the writ petition entitled, “T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India and others”. Taking cognizance of the notice mentioned before it, the Supreme Court gave the following orders, “It has been brought to our notice that a PIL matter Civil Rule (PIL) SH No 1 of 1996, Paul Lyngdoh Versus State of Meghalaya pending in the Shillong Bench of the Gauhati High Court which has been filed by the Khasi Students’ Union is also a related matter. It is therefore appropriate that the matter is also heard by this Court as a connected matter. In view of the fact that in the matters pending in this Court every facet of the problem throughout the country is under consideration, it is appropriate that no aspect of this matter be considered separately by any Court in any form. Accordingly, we direct the transfer of Civil Rule (PIL) SH No 1 of 1996 to this Court…”
Thus, the PIL of the KSU was tagged along whereby the Supreme Court deliberated in-depth on the matter and subsequently delivered a significant judgement in the widely known “T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India” case in 1996. Among other directions, the Supreme Court gave specific directives to the Northeastern States and the rest of the country in paragraphs 4 and 5 respectively. These can be quoted thus- “There shall be a complete ban on the movement of cut trees and timber from any of the seven Northeastern States to any other State across the country either by rails, roads or waterways…” (para 4) and in para 5 the Court directed- “to each State Government to constitute within one month the Expert Committee in order to (i) identify areas which are forests , irrespective whether they are so notified, recognized or classified under any law, and irrespective of the ownership of the land of such forest (ii) identify areas which were earlier forests but stand degraded, denuded or cleared and (iii) identified areas covered by plantation trees belonging to government and those belonging to private persons.” Moreover, the Court examined in detail all aspects of the National Forest Policy, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It emphasized that the word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning of the term irrespective of the nature of ownership and classification thereof”.
The Impact of the Ban:
The adverse impact of the ban, especially on the livelihoods of the poor in the State of Meghalaya, was extreme. According to Tiplut Nongbri, “While the judgement is a major victory for environmentalists and wildlife lovers in the city, it came like a bolt from the blue for the poor forest dwellers and indigenous communities of north-east India…” There was a big chunk of rural populace, especially in the erstwhile West Khasi Hills District whose livelihoods were dependent on timber trade. Unfortunately, most of them were not land or forest owners but mere daily wage labourers who worked under big land/ forests owners and timber merchants. On the other hand, there were these land/forests owners, who after the ban came together as a consortium (temporary) and explored or rather exploited every bit of “tradition”, like the land holding and land tenure system of the “Jaitbynriew” and tried to convince every authority on the way that the Khasis as a tribe, have a unique culture. They deliberately did this to save and serve their individual interests and not the “Jaitbynriew”.
In fact, the concept of land in Khasi socio-cultural polity and the idea of commons or community/clan own lands indeed stand in opposition to the interests of timber lobby. Again, we witnessed the trend of coal mine owners coming together in the name of indigenous rights to ownership of land etc to safeguard their business interest during the National Green Tribunal imposition of ban on rat hole mining in 2014.
The Expert Committee Report: A Reflection
of Indifference
In 2023 after the amendment to the Forest Conservation Act 1980 was passed a series of petitions were filed before the Supreme Court against the Amendment Act and the matter is pending for hearing in the Apex Court. It has been reported that experts and activists claimed that the Amended Act is diluting the environmental protections for forests. Further, the amendment led to opening vast tracts of forest land (including deemed forests and community forests, which are not officially recorded as forests) to human activities…” Therefore, in its interim order the Apex Court directed all States and Union Territories to uphold the definition of forests as stipulated in the 1996 judgement. It also mandated that all States and Union territories must submit the reports of the Expert Committees by March 31. The report must contain a comprehensive record of forests identified by Expert Committees established according to the 1996 Judgement.
In response, the Government of Meghalaya had submitted the report of the Expert Committee vide letter No. MFG.39/51/XXVIII/18,503 Dated March 7, 2024, via the Assistant Inspector General of Forest, Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The above-mentioned Report, (which was attached to the letter), is the same Report of the Expert Committee constituted in 1996 in accordance with Para 5 (i), (ii), and (iii) of the Supreme Court’s interim directions in Writ Petition Civil No. 202 of 1995.
Although, the land system and multiple power centers in Meghalaya mark the complexity of Forest management and conservation in the State. But the Report of the Expert Committee in this regard is very telling and reflects the lethargy of both the State and community to address the issue.
More than two decades had elapsed since the Expert Committee had worked out a report on behalf of the State of Meghalaya as per the direction of the Apex Court (The Report is available @https//parivesh.nic.in/certificates/forms/Meghalaya_Expert_Committee_Report_newpdf). On perusal of the report, it is quite apparent that no attempt had been made so far to create land and forest records and lay down the policy to regulate the traditional land/forests system in Meghalaya which will result in sustainable development as against the rampage of extensive and extractive mining and deforestation.
The introduction to the Report puts in perspective the magnitude of the lethargy of both the State and community when it comes to the environment. Undoubtedly as stated in the Report, “…In Meghalaya the State has control only a small fraction of the total area and those areas are Reserved forests, Protected forests, National Parks, Sanctuaries, gardens and the records of which are available with the Government. While the remaining areas, the revenue records like in some other states wherein Cadastral Survey of land are updated from time to time are not available in Meghalaya. These areas are under the control of the three Autonomous District Councils”.
The Report further states that attempts have been made to source from District Council authorities the approximate figures related to forest areas under their management and control. After a series of meetings, it appears that reliable area figures are not available with them since a regular Cadastral Survey for the entire State has not been conducted. It is also recorded that the Director of Land Records categorically pointed out that Meghalaya is a Non-Cadastral State.
Meghalaya is facing numerous challenges, including pollution, deforestation, and climate change. Therefore, it is essential to evolve and strengthen environmental regulations and practices in favour of conservation of our natural resources of land, rivers and forests for the benefit of all citizens and not just for the elites.

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