DEHRADUN: After Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in its better dated November 14 2019, said that states should decide their own definition of forest and center has nothing to do with it, experts call the move 'two-edged sword'.
Interestingly, the letter says that criteria regarding a 'forest' finalized by a state "need not be subject to the approval of MoEF&CC".
The ministry referring to Supreme Court directions in year 1996 in which it said to define forests stated that there cannot be any 'uniform criteria' applicable to all forest types and states and there has to be different criteria for different forests and states in the country.
"It is not that only Hon'ble Supreme Court has directed the states to identify their own forests, infact the states, having well-established forest departments are in better position rather than MoEF&CC, to understand their own forests and needs, and should frame criteria for their own forests," says the letter.
Shekhar Pathak, a Padam Shree awardee activist and environmentalist said, "This direction of used in constructive way can prove beneficial but there are more chances of misusing of these. Now, state government and officials are free to decide what is forest and what is not. This may witness floodings of approval mining in now prohibited areas to mention one of the possible drawbacks along with many frightening others. There is also a possibility of opening of floodgates of industrial approvals on forest lands."
However, there are people who look a speck of positivity as the rules will be relaxed.
AG Ansari, a conservationist based in Ramnagar, home of Corbett Tiger Reserve said, "The state having rights to decide will enable marking of forest area according to conservation needs of the state. It will help in bringing down alienation of people and minimizing human-animal conflict."
Tushar Dash, independent researcher and expert on forest rights issues based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha said, "The MoEF decision has given a free hand to the forest dept of the states to identify their own forests including deemed forests thereby legitimising illegalities committed over the years in the forest settlement operations and reinforcing mechanisms which led to alienation of rights of forest dwellers and caused historical injustice."
He further said, "Several cases have been reported from states where forest department officials have arbitrarily used the definition of forests to deny rights to the tribals, forest dwellers while allowing use of forests for commercial extraction."
For example in Odisha customary forests of tribals-classified in the records as Dongar, Pahad, Parvat, Tungri kisams (types)- have not been treated as forests for recognition of rights under FRA and claims of tribals have been rejected. But the same categories of land have been included in the Land Bank for allocation to the industries or to the forest dept for Compensatory Afforestation.
Therefore this decision by MoEF contradicts the FRA and can have adverse impact on rights of tribals and forest dwellers as well as on forest conservation.
"MoEF instead of constantly empowering forest official should instead be concerned about how to ensure that a democratic and transparent process for forest governance is followed in keeping with FRA."
Further pointing out a blow to tribal rights, he added that the act of creating forests by the states through the faulty forest settlement operations carried out under the colonial Indian Forest Act and state forest acts has caused historical injustice to the tribals and forest dwellers who have lost their customary and traditional rights.
"In many states, forest categories were defined arbitrarily by the forest dept in the forest settlement process- the creation of deemed forests in some of states is a classic example. In Odisha, a large forest area (14980.57 sq km) was recorded as deemed forest under the Odisha Forest Act without following any due process of settlement of rights of tribals and forest dwellers. The Forest Rights Act was enacted to address this historical injustice. FRA redefines forests as Community Forest Resources and establishes a democratic structure of forest governance with the Gram Sabhas empowered to manage forests," said Dash.
Apart from activists, officials of the forest department are apprehensive about the states deciding what is forest and what is not.
"Ministry has shunned its responsibility of defining the forests to state. States forest department are always under direct pressure from politicians, especially in the matter of land. Only time will tell how prudently states define the forests. MoEFCC should atleast have a committee of experts comprising of scientists, NGOs, forest officers, legal experts, forestry experts, policy experts etc. to critically and objectively evaluate the definition put forth by states," said one of the senior forest officials from Uttarakhand.
Many repeatedly referred to a high profile wedding in Auli of Uttarakhand and said the MoEF letter will allow anyone rich and influential bend the rules their way.
In June, this year, a public interest litigation was filed in Uttarakhand high court apposing wedding of children of Gupta brothers, Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta in Auli bugyals in Chamoli district which was estimated up to Rs 200 Crore.
Earlier, the HC had directed to deposit Rs 3 crore prior to the wedding functions from June 18-22, 2019 to restore damages afterwards.