Related Topics: Environment & Biodiversity, Forest Advisory Committee (FAC)
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Environment Ministry, comprising independent experts and officials in the Centre’s forestry division, has clarified that the States need not take the Centre’s approval to define what constitutes unclassified land as forest.
Legal definition of Forest
- According to FAC, States having well established forest departments are in a better position, rather than MoEF&CC, to understand their own forests and needs, and should frame criteria for their forests and criteria so finalised by a state need not be subject to approval by MoEF&CC.
- Since 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has been considering evolving a legal definition of forest and reportedly prepared drafts in 2016.
- However, these have never been made public and the FAC’s clarification officially signifies an end to such efforts.
- The conundrum of defining forests has been around since the 1980s.
- The freedom to define land as forest, not already classified as forests by the Centre or state records, has been the prerogative of the States since 1996 and stems from a Supreme Court order called the Godavarman judgement.
- The 1996 Supreme Court judgement expanded the definition of forest to include lands that were already notified by the Centre as forests, that appear in government records as forests as well as those that fell in the “dictionary definition” of forest.
- The latter clause allows the States to evolve their own criteria and define tracts of land as forest, and these would then be bound by forest conservation laws.
- Forests defined under the criteria evolved by states, constituted about 1% of the country’s forests and once so defined would be known as ‘deemed forests.’
- An all-encompassing definition of ‘forest’ is not possible for India, because the country has 16 different kinds of forest.
- A tract of grassland in one State might qualify in one region as forest, but not in another.
- The onus on the States to define forests is also significant, because the States often claim that they are helpless in preventing encroachment because a patch of land in question hadn’t been notified as forest.
- A recent instance was the felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony, which officially isn’t classified as ‘forest.’