The Supreme Court on Monday told states and Union Territories to follow the definition of “forest” that has been mentioned in a 1996 judgement, reported Live Law.

The bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud ordered that until the process of identifying forest land as per new rules is completed, states and Union Territories must go by the definition of “forest” laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of TN Godavarman Thirumalpad vs Union of India.

In the 1996 judgement, the court held that a deemed forest would not only include “forests” as understood by the dictionary meaning of the word – a large area with significant tree cover – but also any areas recorded as forests in government records, irrespective of ownership.

The judgement has protected vast tracts of eco-sensitive and Adivasi lands under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, even if they are not formally classified as a “forest” in revenue records.

The Supreme Court was on Monday hearing petitions challenging the amendments made to the Forest Conservation Act in 2023. The petitioners have contended that the amended law narrows down the definition of “forest” mentioned in the 1996 judgement.

The petitioners also told the court that as per the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, state governments and Union Territory administrations have to prepare a consolidated list of forest lands within a year of the amendments to the Act being notified. They expressed the apprehension that while this process is underway, land classified as “forest” as per the 1996 judgement should not be diverted for non-forest use, according to Live Law.

The Supreme Court then said in an interim ruling: “Pending the completion of exercise by the administration of the State Governments and Union Territories, under Rule 16, the principles which are elucidated in the judgment of this court in TN Godavarman must be continued to be observed.”

The court also held that prior permission will be necessary to operate zoos or wildlife safaris on forest land. The amendments had earlier permitted zoos, safaris and other eco-tourism activities on forest lands, whether deemed or legally notified, without prior clearance. Experts had maintained that this would adversely impact local ecologies.

The petitions are listed for final disposal in July 2024.