Can the Karnataka government denotify 6.64 lakh hectares of 9.94 lakh hectares of deemed forest land in the state without clearance from the Supreme Court, which is monitoring enforcement of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, across the country?
This is a question the B S Yediyurappa government has referred for legal opinion to the state advocate general after its key ministers announced in September in the Legislature that the state would denotify the said land.
“There is a lot of pressure to issue a government order to denotify the 6.64 lakh hectares after the announcements were made by ministers. There is a view that a GO can be issued without informing the Supreme Court,” a senior official in the Karnataka Forest, Ecology and Environment Department said.
The Supreme Court has been monitoring enforcement of the forest Act since its intervention in the landmark T N Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India case of 1995. In the backdrop of the ruling, 9.94 lakh hectares had been deemed forest in Karnataka.
On September 25, Forest Minister Anand Singh told the Assembly that the government would soon declassify 6.64 lakh hectares or 67% out of this, and hand over the same to revenue authorities. Revenue Minister R Ashok said this was revenue land that had been classified as ‘deemed forest’ by overzealous revenue officials.
“In the remaining 3.30 lakh hectares as well, if there are houses or villages in about 200 acres of a survey number, we will provide an opportunity for denotifying. We will be issuing an order on this very soon,’’ Singh had said.
Demands to reclassify
A deemed forest fits “dictionary meaning” of a forest, “irrespective of ownership''. Amidst claims that the move hit farmers, as well as barred large tracts from mining, the state has been arguing that the classification was done without taking into account needs of people.
The minister had also said that he had been in talks with officials on this, as well as the law and revenue ministers, for a long time.
Ashok had said, “In the past officials classified a lot of land as deemed forest without considering whether it is needed for grazing, building a hospital and other purposes. We are now taking back 6 lakh hectares. First preference will be given to those using the land, and government departments.”
A committee of experts set up after the Supreme Court ruling in the Godavarman case had identified 43.18 lakh hectres as forest land in Karnataka for conservation, 33.23 lakh hectares of which was declared notified forest area (as per forest records) and 9.94 lakh hectares as ‘deemed forest’.
As per the committee, a deemed forest was land with the characteristics of a forest and fitting “the dictionary meaning” of one — “irrespective of ownership’’. In other words, these are thickly wooded areas recommended to be taken over by the government for preservation as forests but not notified.
People’s representatives from regions like the Western Ghats have often pushed for reclassification of the deemed forests, claiming many farmers have been affected because of the move. There are also a lot of claims for mining licences in these areas, which are rejected on grounds of these being deemed forests.
In May 2014, the then Congress-JD(S) government had ordered reassessment of the deemed forest land, which concluded that 5.18 lakh hectares of the 9.94 lakh hectares could be declassified. This report was placed before the state Cabinet, which decided to inform the Supreme Court about it.
Consequently, in February 2019, an interim application was filed before the Court by the state, seeking permission to exclude 5.18 hectares from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act. The apex court is yet to pass an order on the same.
After coming to power in July 2019 in the state, the BJP government had ordered another assessment of the deemed forest land, and found that as much as 6.64 lakh hectares could be denotified. While the Cabinet had decided to approach the Supreme Court with the new figures, the senior official quoted earlier said, “Some leaders are of the view that a GO can be issued to denotify deemed forest land without a clearance from the Court since an affidavit had been filed earlier. We have sent it for legal opinion.”
In September, when the state government had told the Assembly about its plan, former Congress revenue minister R V Deshpande had said, “It was our Cabinet that took a decision to release the deemed forest land… My first request to you is to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court.”