The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Environment Ministry has clarified that the States need not get the approval of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in defining unclassified lands as forests.
- The issue of classifying lands as forests are in consideration with the MoEF&CC since 2014.
- It has prepared various drafts, but none have been made public.
- The clarification from the FAC puts an end to the issue.
- Since 1996, it is the prerogative of the States to define land as forest land.
- The Supreme Court in the Godavarman judgment of 1996 gave states the freedom to define land.
- The apex Court expanded the definition of forest land to include forest lands notified by the central government, those that are in the government records and those that are in consonance with the dictionary definition of forests.
- With the last part of the judgment, the states were allowed to set their own criteria and define forest lands thereby making these lands bound to forest conservation laws.
- But, not all states have used the clause to notify an area as forest land.
- Those that have been notified using the clause are termed as ‘Deemed Forests’.
- Only 1% of forest lands across the country have been notified as deemed forests.
Why The Clarification Now?
- At a meeting to deliberate on granting permission for industries to fell trees (as FAC is the apex body to discuss such matters).
- The Uttarakhand government has asked the opinion of the FAC to a set of criteria that it has put forth to define forest land.
- For this, the FAC noted that states with well-established forest departments that have a good understanding of their forests can frame their own rules for defining forest land and need not get the approval of the MoEF&CC.
In India, an all-encompassing definition of forest is not possible. There are 16 different types of forests in the country. While in one state a grassland can be deemed a forest and in others, it may not be. Thus, allowing the states to set their own criteria is significant. Also, when a state deems a land as a forest, the decision cannot be reversed. This allows the state government to fight encroachments as the land is notified as a forest land now.