In today’s Finshots, we tell you about the Supreme Court's interim order against the government’s plan to redefine forests.

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The Story

How do you define what constitutes a forest?

If you ask the Supreme Court of India, they’ll tell you to look up the “dictionary meaning” of forests. At least, that’s what they said in a ruling in 1996. And the dictionary simply says it’s “a large area of land that is thickly covered with trees.”

It’s a bit vague, we know. But hey, that’s what the highest court in India ruled.

But wait…the incumbent Indian government wasn’t happy with that. It didn’t want to define a forest in this manner.

So, it went against the Supreme Court ruling last year and did something big — it passed a new law. Or rather, it amended an existing law called the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980 which had been set up to keep a check on deforestation. The government now said that the land had to be marked as a forest in its revenue records. That’s the only definition it would accept. It couldn’t be any large patch of land with thick trees.

Now this was a big problem. Because a whopping 28% of India’s forests are outside this recorded forest area. And with this amendment, it put all of this at risk. These lands could be cleared to make way for commercial interest quite easily.

That doesn’t seem like a good idea, does it? We’re only destroying our forest cover in doing so.

Also, the government gave itself an exemption in the amended act. It did away with scrutiny for areas within 100 km of India’s border. So the government could set up transmission lines and highways without any environmental clearance or permission. It simply had to cite national security.

But here’s the thing. Just look at the map of the North East of India and mark out the 100 km points from the external borders. You’ll see that a very tiny portion of the land falls outside this zone. Now the problem is that 65% of the North East’s geographic area is under forest cover. So this naturally means that most of the forest land would be exempt from scrutiny if the government had its way.

Source: Himdhara

In other cases, private citizens themselves could wreak havoc.

Like in the case of Himachal Pradesh. During the colonial rule, folks who were in influential positions within the bureaucracy could do as they pleased. So they took over forest areas in the names of various individuals within the family. And large swathes of these forest lands are still in their control.

Now mind you, these don’t come under government-declared ‘forests’. So with the amendment to the FCA, these forest owners could quite easily chop down the trees for their own interests — to set up resorts or plantations.

As Himdhara, an environmental research collective, said in an appeal:

This is a matter of serious conflict in districts like Sirmaur and Solan. Many of these forests are contiguously spread over an area of several square kilometres. In few cases they are in the vicinity of protected and reserved forests and play a critical role in maintaining ecological balance of that region…

So any of these actions by the government or private entities could put the biodiversity-rich forests of the Himalayas and the North East under threat.

But that’s not all.

Even indigenous people and tribes could be displaced!

See, there’s something you should know — in the five decades after independence, over 2.13 crore people were displaced from their homes because we wanted to construct dams, mines, wildlife sanctuaries, and for other industrial purposes. And 40% of them were adivasis or tribals. If you think about it, it means that their forests and livelihoods were snatched away in the name of the greater good.

What could they do?

Well, they fought! They protested and demanded protection. And finally managed to wrangle the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2006.

Now you can bet this was quite crucial because any industrial activity would need the local committee’s or Gram Sabha’s permission before it could proceed. And it’s just because of the FRA that hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh and mining in Chhattisgarh were put on hold. Otherwise, more forests would’ve been felled. More livelihoods would’ve been hurt.

But here’s the thing. The amendment to the FCA could hurt them again.

See, the FRA protected something called a community forest resource. Think of this as forest land that the tribal communities have historically used for their livelihood — for grazing and cultivation. In many cases, these areas could include deemed forests which aren’t notified by the government either.

But the amendment would mean that only government-notified forests would be protected. The government, in theory, could take over every other piece of community forest resource without permission. Or put another way, the amendment would impinge on the rights of the tribals laid out in the FRA.

Yup, the amendment could have quite disastrous consequences.

So you can see why a group of ex-civil servants and NGOs felt they had no option but to take the matter to the Supreme Court. They wanted to ensure that we have proper checks and balances in place to protect our forests.

And let’s just say they seem to have won. Temporarily at least. Because the Court’s not happy with the government and wants it to use the “dictionary definition” of forests again!

That seems like a big deal, no?

But it’s just temporary as we said. We don’t know what will happen next. They will come back to hear the case in July. And in the meantime, the Court has given a diktat to States and union territories to compile a list of their forests.

Till then, we'll wait and hope that our forests and communities that are dependent on them remain protected.

Until then…

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