Following protests from forest rights activists and environmentalists, the Naveen Patnaik government has changed a controversial circular issued in November last year that sought to undermine a landmark SC order defining forest.
In November last year, additional chief secretary of revenue and disaster management department Dr Taradatt in a circular to all revenue officials including tehsildars had said that if the Record of Rights(RoR) of a land does not recognise any land as forest, the same may be treated as non-forest land. The controversial circular interpreted that the provisions of Forest Conservation Act, 1980 would not be applicable to the land recorded as forest in the sabik (previous) RoR records, but subsequently classified as non-forest in the Hal (present) RoR published after 25.10.1980. The FC Act came into force on October 25, 1980.
In the same circular, Taradatt said only those lands filed in the affidavit of Orissa government before the Supreme Court in the TN Godavarman vs Union of India case (Civil Writ Petition case No 202/1995) can be treated as forest land and which are not included in the list may be treated as non-forest land.
But after protests by forest conservationists and a rebuttal by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the government two days ago issued another circular clarifying that even if the lands are not covered in the affidavit filed by Orissa government in the TN Godavarman vs Union of India case, but satisfies the description of forest, the same would be treated as forest. In the affidavit filed by the State, lands which were actually recorded as various kinds of forest in revenue records escaped the list erroneously.
Addl PCCF(Central) Tejinder Singh in Ministry of Environment and Forests in a letter to Orissa chief secretary JK Mohapatra in February this year had directed the State government to ensure that no non-forest activity is allowed in the land which has been changed from forest in sabik settlement to non-forest in Hal settlement after 25.10.1980 till the matter is decided by the Ministry.
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“The additional chief secretary’s order was in direct conflict with the orders passed by the Supreme Court of India. By issuing such orders he wants to take out lands hitherto recorded as “forest” prior to 25.10.1980 in government records,” said Dr Biswajit Mohanty, former member of National Board for Wildlife.
Orissa has vast tracts of revenue forests or forests under the control of the revenue department also known as District Level Committee forest land, Khesra, Gramya Jungle, etc. Of the total area of 58,136 sq kms of forest area in the State, 31,786 sq. kms or nearly 55 % is under the control of State revenue department.
Though the Orissa Land Reforms Act, 1960 allowed the revenue officials to effect change in the classification of any land after following certain procedures and rules, thse powers were abrogated after 25.10.1980 when the FC Act came into force. As per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, no forest land can be diverted for non forest use until approval of the Central Government is obtained.
Further, in Union of India and Others (TN Godavarman case), a two-judge bench of SC comprising justices J.S. Verma and B.N. Kirpal interpreted “forests” in a wide manner. In the historic judgement delivered on 12.12.1996, the SC said: “The word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. This description covers all statutorily ‘recognized forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2(1) of the Forest Conservation Act. The term ‘forest land’, occurring in Section 2, will not only include ‘Forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the Government record irrespective of the ownership. This is how it has to be understood for.”
The SC further directed: “In view of the meaning of the word “forest” in the Act, it is obvious that prior approval of the central government is required for any non-forest activity within the area of any ‘forest’. In accordance with Section 2 of the Act, all on-going activity within any forest in any State throughout the country, without the prior approval of the Central Government, must cease forthwith. It is, therefore, clear that the running of saw mills of any kind including veneer or plywood mills, and mining of any mineral are non-forest purposes and are, therefore, not permissible without prior approval of the Central Government. Accordingly, any such activity is prima facie violation of the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Every State Government must promptly ensure total cessation of all such activities forthwith.”
Incidentally, in October 2011, Taradatt’s predecessor RK Sharma in a circular to all district collectors had made it clear that the provisions of the FC Act, 1980 would be applicable to any type of forest land including the land recorded as non-forest land in Hal (present) records published after 25.10.1980 if the same was of recorded as forestland in respective sabik (previous) record as on October 25, 1980. He had further clarified that such land would be treated as forestland even if it was not included in the District Level Committee report.
A senior forest and environment official said the revenue department’s previous circular would have had catastrophic impact. “By virtue of that circular, vast areas would have been freely diverted without any clearance process. There would have been massive impacts due to no bar on diversion. No forest officer would have been able to give his views on the effects on local wildlife if such diversion were carried out,” the official said.