Heed SC’s directive on saving forests - Hindustan Times
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Heed SC’s directive on saving forests

ByHT Editorial
Feb 20, 2024 09:50 PM IST

The focus should stay on the protection and restoration of forests, not on releasing the land for “non-forest” purposes.

The Supreme Court (SC) has done well to ask the State to stick with the dictionary definition of forest and respect its TN Godavarman Thirumulpad (1996) verdict in letter and spirit. The Court’s interim order on Monday came on petitions filed against the dilutions introduced by the government last year through the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 2023, which replaced the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022. The 2023 rules, it was feared, would undermine the protection offered by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Godavarman order.

Forest cover in India has been shrinking. Governments have been ambiguous in their commitment to protecting forests. (Representative Image) PREMIUM
Forest cover in India has been shrinking. Governments have been ambiguous in their commitment to protecting forests. (Representative Image)

The 2023 rules lifted restrictions on unprotected forests. As per the petitioners, this would lead to the declassification of 197,000 sq km of land deemed as forest (under the 1996 SC order) but not notified so and expose them for potential exploitation. Under the 2023 rules, the Centre had said non-forest activities such as zoos and safaris, projects of national importance within 100 km of international borders, and defence or public utilities up to five hectares in areas with Maoist presence could be permitted in these areas. The push for declassification also needs to be seen in the context of various state governments failing to carry out reviews of forest land as instructed by the SC in its 1996 order. On Monday, the Court asked states and UTs to comply with the 1996 order and has set March 31 as the deadline to submit review reports.

This legal battle should not be framed as one of development against the environment. Forest cover in India has been shrinking. Governments have been ambiguous in their commitment to protecting forests. With the aggravation of the climate crisis, an ecological disaster is looming: Depletion of forest cover has triggered catastrophes and led to a rise in instances of human-animal conflict. The focus should stay on the protection and restoration of forests, not on releasing the land for “non-forest” purposes.

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