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Issue 5
May , 2007
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Govt's definition of forest may run into conflict with SC

Source: Times News Network, Date: May , 2007

The ministry of environment and forests is veering towards another battle with the SC. It has prepared a draft definition of forests which will remove private forest lands from the purview of forest-related laws, coming in conflict with a SC order of 1996, which had brought all forests, regardless if they grow on private or government notified lands, under the provisions of stringent forest-related legislations.

Now the ministry is proposing to define a forest as ''an area under government control notified or recorded as forest under any act, for conservation and management of ecological and biological resources''.

The definition is bound to have huge implications for the corporate lobby, the plantation sector as well as many farmers and tribals. Any diversion of a patch of land legally defined as forest requires prior permission from the ministry and has been a long-standing grouse of both the industry and the tribals for encumbering the land with several restrictions. TOI had earlier reported when the ministry had made a move on the controversial issue setting up a possible battle with the SC.

Seized of the fact that no law really defined the term 'forests' despite three acts regulating the sector, the SC in 1996 ordered that the literal meaning of fore-sts be used, consequently making actual declaration of land as forest by the government redundant as long as there was a growing forest on the land. But, in a meeting held on the topic at the ministry in March, the environment secretary hinted at the end purpose of the entire process.

According to the minutes of the meeting that TOI accessed, the secretary says that ''the present interpretation that is applicable to forest and forest land subsequent to the decision of the Supreme Court in 1996 has been creating a situation of serious disincentives for the people in conserving and promoting natural growth on private lands''. The definition could act, in the ministry's view, as a corrective measure. The secretary also noted, as per a comment note of April, that ''where persons have legal rights to determine the use of land (eg private land) they would seek to avoid a situation where a particular land use (eg forestry) imposes regulatory restrictions on their rights...'' implying that the existing definition of forests was hindering rights of private entities to decide how they use the land.

The final definition though has not been fixed as yet. May 26, a meeting is to be held to consider the implications of the definition for the northeast region.