Supreme Court Upholds Definition of Forests from 1996 Godavarman Judgment, Says in Interim Order on Amended Forest Act

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New Delhi: In a significant interim order issued on Monday, February 19, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the definition of forests as established in its landmark 1996 judgment in the case of T.N. Godavarman v. Union of India. The apex court emphasized that until states and Union territories furnish comprehensive details of all recorded forests, they must adhere to the definition outlined in the 1996 ruling.

The recent order comes amidst a legal battle concerning the 2023 amendment to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, which has been subject to intense scrutiny and opposition from various quarters.

The 1996 Godavarman judgment stipulates that any area meeting the dictionary definition of a forest should be recognized and safeguarded under the FCA, regardless of its official classification. This stands in contrast to the amendment passed by the Union government last year, which proposed revisions potentially permitting human activities on vast expanses of forest land, including areas not officially designated as forests.

Following the enactment of the amendment in August 2023, concerned groups and organizations resorted to legal recourse, petitioning the Supreme Court against the contentious legislation.

In response to these petitions, the apex court, in its recent interim order, not only upheld the forest definition from the Godavarman judgment but also clarified that forest lands cannot be diverted for purposes such as safaris or zoos without prior approval from the court. Conservationists have hailed this interim order as a “landmark” decision, emphasizing its significance in upholding constitutional principles and ecological preservation.

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 stands as a crucial legislative framework aimed at preserving India’s rich biodiversity by restricting non-forest activities within forested areas. However, concerns were raised last year when the Union environment minister introduced the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha, sparking apprehension among scientists, conservationists, activists, and retired forest officials.

Critics argue that the 2023 amendment undermines the integrity of the forest definition, potentially facilitating the exploitation of environmentally sensitive regions for commercial ventures like tourism. For instance, the proposed conversion of a portion of the Aravalli hills in Haryana into a safari project has drawn sharp criticism.

Despite these concerns, the amendment, now known as the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980, was passed by both houses of parliament and received presidential assent last year.

In response to petitions challenging the amendment, including those highlighting the failure to prepare a consolidated record of forest lands as mandated by Rule 16 of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023, the Supreme Court’s recent interim order underscores the imperative for states and Union territories to uphold the forest definition from the Godavarman judgment until comprehensive forest records are provided.

The bench, led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, has directed states to establish state expert committees (SECs) to quantify and identify forest lands, thereby reaffirming the commitment to ecological preservation and sustainable development.

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