Twenty one years after a petition by NGO Goa Foundation, the National Green Tribunal Wednesday finally identified and accepted 46.11 square kilometres of land as private forest in Goa. In doing so, the tribunal has rejected a Goa government report which had reduced the private forest cover to 41.20 square kilometres.
The order, by Justice Sheo Kumar Singh, Judicial Member, and Expert Member Dr Satyawan Singh Gabryal brings the curtains down on a long-fought litigation. The order mentions that since the litigation had been pending before the Apex court and High Court before finally being sent to NGT, the order should be taken as final and the “matter should come to rest”.
Various state committees were set up after the Supreme Court ordered in 1996 that tree felling in all forest areas would be covered by the Forest Conservation Act 1980, irrespective of ownership, making it important to identify and demarcate private forests, based on canopy density, contiguous forest cover and other aspects.
Two committees since 2002, the S M Sawant Committee, and the successor committee of H Y Karapurkar, identified forests on private lands in Goa – a total of 67.12 sqkm. But, according to the Goa Foundation, a “government’s demarcation report produced in 2008 reduced the private forests identified by the S&K reports to 41.20 Sq km. Huge plots belonging to some major reality firms were found excluded from the definition of forest.”
The Goa-based NGO challenged this report in the High Court. The petition was transferred to the NGT in 2013. In 2018, on NGT orders, a review committee was set up to probe the disputed area.
The review committee headed by Deepshikha Sharma, IFS and Deputy Conservator (Working Plan), identified an additional area of 4.91 square kilometres besides the 41.20 sqkm demarcated by the Forest Department, bringing private forest cover to 46.11 sq km.
The Goa government didn’t accept this report and instead appointed its own committee headed by Anthony D’Souza, Joint Secretary, Revenue. Of the 4.91 square kilometres added by Sharma’s review report, the government excluded 1.04 square kilometres.
On Wednesday, the NGT, having probed all reports, said, “On perusal of report of various committees…and after submission made by parties at both sides, we are of the considered opinion that total of 46.11 sq kms (i.e 41.20 sq km of the forest area demarcated by the Forest Department out of 67.12 sq km identified by Sawant Committee and Karapurkar Committee + 4.91 sq km private forest area identified by the Review Committee) is the private forest area in the state of Goa.”
The verdict ends the confusion private plot owners have had on their land’s forestry status.
“The NGT had directed the final forest report to be deposited with it by July 2019. However, because of the appointment of the D’Souza Committee, the Goa government was forced to pay Rs.1 crore performance guarantee, Rs50 lakh as penalty, and Rs61 lakh additional fines,” said Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation.
Further, the Goa government has been directed to “update the revenue records in accordance with the rules immediately”.
The NGT has further directed the government to pay the Goa Foundation the costs of the litigation.
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