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REACTING to the increasing deforestation under commercial pressures in the country, the Supreme Court has banned all commercial activities inside forests without prior approval from the Central government and established stiffer control over tree-felling and timber trade in forest areas. An interim order to this effect was passed by Justices J S Verma and B N Kirpal on December 12 in a civil writ petition.
The original writ petition filed in 1995, which pertained to a dispute over tree-felling rights in the forest land between an individual and the state, in Gudalur taluka of the Nilgiri region in Tamil Nadu, has been clubbed by the court with another filed by tree gro wers from Jammu and Kashmir. There will be a further in-depth hearing to examine all aspects relating to the National Forest Policy on February 25, 1997. It is hoped that the interim order will give the court more time to review the situation and issue appropriate directives.
The court has also directed each state government to constitute within one month an expert committee to identify areas which can be called 'forests', irrespective of whether they are so notified. The committee will also identify areas which were earlier forests, but stand degraded at present. Further, each government should file a report within two months regarding the number of sawmills and plywood mills within the state, their capacity, proximity to forests and source of timber.
Another expert committee will have to be constituted within one month to assess the sustainable capacity of the state forests with respect to sawmills and timber-based industry, and the number of existing sawmills which can be safely sustained in the state. A committee having the principal conservator of forests and another senior officer as members will oversee the compliance of this order and file status reports.
While ordering the closure of sawmills and wood-based industry in all forest areas and certain parts of the northeast, the court has, however, protected the wages of the workers employed in such units. They will continue to be paid their full emoluments and shall not be retrenched from their service. The court initiative has been welcomed by several environmentalists as it streamlines certain procedures for forest clearances.