Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar last week announced that the Indian government would soon issue a statutory definition of forests. At present, the country has no such definition despite governments and courts having made several unsuccessful attempts over almost two decades at providing one. The definition has a direct impact on forest and biodiversity conservation, implementation of tribal rights, land acquisition and land diversion for non-forest use.

In a televised interview, Javadekar said that “notified forests and those with good canopy [tree cover] will be defined as forest”. The statement immediately raised concern about whether plantations and urban green belts, with less green cover, would be excluded and opened up for commercial or industrial activity. Whatever the final definition, the Environment Ministry has to take into account the vastly different ecological conditions across the country and feedback from all states and union territories.

The Indian Forest Act of 1927 does not define forests, though forest areas have been legally notified under it as reserve forest, protected forest or village forest. The watershed Forest Conservation Act of 1980 made central government approval mandatory before diverting forestland for non-forest use.

Watershed case

The debate over defining a forest came to the fore in 1996 with the Supreme Court ruling in the case of TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India. The case began as a petition to stop illegal felling of timber in the Nilgiri hills but expanded into an overhaul of the Indian forest policy. The Supreme Court said that forests would be defined by their “dictionary meaning”, without elaborating what this meaning was. It also assumed responsibility for implementing the Forest Conservation Act with this new definition.

The court ordered all non-forest activity like sawmills and mining to be suspended in forest areas and stopped felling of trees. It kept the Godavarman case open using the device of a “continuing mandamus” and heard hundreds of matters related to the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act. The ruling excluded the lower courts from admitting such application, leaving the Supreme Court the sole administrator of the law when it came to forest matters. This was until the creation of the National Green Tribunal in 2010 to “dispose of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources”.

While the apex court has been both commended for taking such dramatic action to stop indiscriminate destruction of forests and criticised for overstepping its boundaries, the Godavarman case has gone on to show how essential it is to define forests.

In its 1996 ruling, the court had asked states to identify, demarcate and notify forest areas. Even 18 years later, many states have failed to do so. While hearing a case in 2014 of whether a hotmix plant should be allowed to operate in Manda Khal village in Uttarakhand, the National Green Tribunal noted the state government’s failure to chalk out its deemed forests.

Conflicting interests

In 2007, the Environment Ministry under the United Progressive Alliance government held consultations with environment groups and came up with several options for a definition of forest. Some included all areas important for ecological security. Others took livelihood and social issues into account. At the time, environmental activists supported not having a forest definition and the flexibility it afforded, given the different development and conservation needs across the country.

Defining forest will determine which tracts of land will need the Environment Ministry’s approval before being diverted for infrastructural or industrial purposes under the Forest Conservation Act. Equally importantly, it will signal to industry what land it can use without the government’s environmental nod. Defining forest can determine which tribal groups will get benefits and claims settled under the Forest Rights Act and which groups won’t.

‘No go’ zones

The task of defining a forest is only the first step in trying to resolve forest regulation issues. The second is to define what part of forests can be opened up to non-forest activity. Congress minister Jairam Ramesh tried to curb illegal coal mining using a classification of “go” and “no-go” zones that made about 35% of forest area out of bounds for coal mining. His successor Jayanthi Natarajan tried to define “inviolate” forests to the same end of keeping them out of reach of coal miners. Inviolate forests were to be determined on six criteria – forest density, forest type, the level of fragmentation, biodiversity richness, wildlife value and hydrological value. Both Ramesh and Natarajan’s attempts were short-lived after pressure from industry lobbies and other arms of the government.

More recently, the TSR Subramanian Committee, constituted by the government to look into revamping India’s six environment laws, suggested that inviolate forests should be those already notified as protected areas and forests that have 70% or more canopy cover. This approach however opens up close to 90% of India’s forests, which are not that dense, to polluting projects. The committee also observed that plantations be left out of the definition of forests, noting that private citizens were often reluctant to undertake social forestry for fear that their land would then be declared a forest needing approvals from the government for non-forest use.

Javadekar’s statement indicates that the ministry is likely to take the Subramanian committee’s view that good canopy constitutes good forest. That could leave less dense forests, scrubland and desert land that are equally important open to exploitation.