'Sir… if we define forests, it could create many loopholes'

Union forest ministry’s reply to parliamentary committee’s query on absence of a clear definition of forests  

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 07 March 2019
Photo: Agnimirh Basu/CSE

India got the definition of “forest” in 1996, thanks to a Supreme Court intervention. But that was not supposed to be the ultimate one as the forest bureaucracy, despite accepting it, showed reservations. Soon after, the forest ministry started its prolonged attempt to get a proper official definition of forest.

The latest report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests puts a curtain on this — highlighting that the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) informed them that it would continue with the definition given by the Supreme Court.

On October 10, 2018, in a response to the committee, the director-general (Forest) and special secretary, MoEF&CC, said, “Sir, actually, if we define ‘forests’, it could create many loopholes that may be exploited. So, right now, we are going by the definition given by the Supreme Court. As of now, ‘forest’ means any area that is recorded as forest in any governmental record irrespective of whether it is having a forest growth or not.”

The committee had asked the official why the draft National Forest Policy 2018 didn’t put any definition of forest. It wanted to know why the ministry was not able to clearly define forest.

On December 12, 1996, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment said: “The word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2(i) of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The term ‘forest land’, occurring in Section 2, will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership.”

The ministry’s argument is that the apex court’s definition enabled it to record forests, hence ensuring better record keeping. After the SC order, most Indian states have given affidavits accepting the definition of forest.

“But once we define forests, saying that forest is a community of trees, then these alpine meadows, etc, would go out of that definition. So, we are really grappling with it. A definition cannot be a two-page or three-page thing. That is why we are working on the definition very carefully. Once we come up with the definition, it has to be so foolproof that it is not misused. That is our main concern,” the ministry informed the committee in writing.

In December 2018, Down To Earth reported that the MoEF&CC had started the process of “comprehensively amending” the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA). The amendments, as sources informed Down To Earth then, would also include definitions of terms like forests, pollution, ecological services etc.

Interestingly, the ministry told the committee that they didn’t face any difficulty due to absence of a “clear” definition of forest. “The Ministry further brought out that since the various legal issues related to forests are being adequately addressed by the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and related orders of Hon’ble Supreme Court, the ministry is not facing any difficulty for want of a definition of forest at present,” the parliamentary committee report noted.

In the final recommendation, the committee agreed with the ministry’s fear that “any narrow and specific definition of forests may leave out certain types of forests and open up the possibility of loopholes being exploited by vested interests”.

However, it recommended that the ministry must come out with a “comprehensive, clear-cut and legally sustainable definition of forest to dispel any kind of doubt in this regard”.

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