SC refrains from staying amendments to Forest Conservation Act
The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) of 13 retired public servants challenging the constitutional validity of the amendments claiming they would be a “death knell” for India’s forests
The Supreme Court on Thursday refrained from staying the amendments to the Forest Conservation Act that take effect from December 1 after the Union government assured that no “precipitative action” will be taken until guidelines are framed for an exemption from the definition of the forest under the new law.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) of 13 retired public servants challenging the constitutional validity of the amendments claiming they will be a “death knell” for India’s forests. The petitioners moved a stay application claiming that the law restricts the expansive scope of forests the Supreme Court laid down in the ruling in the TN Godavarman case in December 1996.
A bench of justices BR Gavai and PS Narasimha asked additional solicitor-general Balbir Singh whether the apprehensions of the petitioners were true. It noted the 1996 ruling defined forest land under the Forest Conservation Act’s Section 2 to mean land notified as forest under any law, land recorded as forests in government records, and the dictionary meaning of forest, which gave forest cover an expansive meaning and legal protection.
Singh said the amendments do not seek to dilute the definition of forests as laid down in the 1996 judgment. “It is not our case that private lands are not included. That understanding is not correct.”
The government informed the court that any exemption from the definition of forest cover under the amended law would be as per the guidelines being framed.
The court said, “If you are saying you are not diluting the definition of forest as under the 1996 judgment, we will record your statement. We will hear this petition after six weeks as it has serious implications.”
The court said to address the concerns of the petitioners, Singh would make a statement that no “precipitative action” would be taken in terms of the definition of forests as understood in the Godavarman judgment. It allowed the government to file a detailed response to the petition in four weeks.
Senior advocate Prashanto Chandra Sen, who represented the petitioners, argued that the 1996 judgment directed states to constitute State Expert Committees (SEC) to identify and demarcate forest cover to be protected. “It is unclear whether such SECs exist in each state. The reports of the SECs are not available in the public domain and the same are not accessible under the Right to Information Act. Once the amendments get notified, states can do what they like.”
The stay plea said if forests are diverted and destroyed, it would cause irreversible damage which cannot be compensated through afforestation or plantation as the quality of the forest cannot be recovered fully. “The 2023 Amendment Act is in blatant violation of several principles of Indian environmental law – [the] principle of sustainable development, precautionary principle, intergenerational equity, principle of non-regression and public trust doctrine.”
The petitioners argued each diversion of land, without any cumulative ceiling being prescribed across the country, will pock mark forests with cancerously growing deforested islands and fragment them, causing enormous ecological loss.
Parliament in August cleared the amendments exempting from scrutiny forest land up to 10 hectares if construction of security-related infrastructure is proposed. There was no clarity on what it would include.
The petition questioned exemption to activities such as safaris, zoos, and eco tourism facilities in forests that could disturb the delicate ecological balance of these protected spaces. It argued by permitting commercial activity in forests, the amendments ignore the associated negative impacts on forests and wildlife with the creation of permanent structures, access roads, power transmission lines, and other supporting infrastructure for zoos, safaris, etc.
The court also issued notice on another petition raising a similar challenge. Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan pointed out that the amendments allow the construction of projects of national importance and natural security infrastructure in forest lands falling within 100 kilometres from the international border or Line of Control. He said that north-eastern states and Sikkim have objected to such a provision as this would consume the whole of forests.
The petitions before the court claimed that a Joint Committee of Parliament, which was set up to review the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, was “misled” as it took the government’s assurance to protect all categories of forests at face value. They submitted that a greater degree of responsibility is cast on the legislature.