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Govt of India move will 'allow' corporates to take control of Odisha's Niyamgiri forests

By Manohar Chauhan* 

Despite reservation and hue and cry form many sections including retired forest officials, environmentalist, forest conservationist, forest rights activists, etc., the joint parliamentary committee has given green signal to the amendments brought by the Modi government in the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). The Bill is to be tabled in the monsoon session in the Parliament.
One of the important amendments brought by the Modi government in the FCA on 28th Mach, 2023 is altering the definition of “forest” set by the Supreme Court of India in 1996.
The amendment Bill proposes that the FCA would be applicable only to the forests/plots that have been notified as "forest" according to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and plots/areas recorded as "forest" in government records as on or after October 25, 1980.
It is to be noted that in the 1996 hearing of the Godavarman case, the Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment had ruled that FCA would be applicable to all forests, irrespective of the nature of its ownership or classification, and the word "forest" must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. The Supreme Court had defined “forest” under Section 2 of 1980 Act to include three categories:
  1.  Statutorily recognized forests including reserved or protected forests which are covered under Section 2(i) of FCA, 1980s;
  2. any “forest” as defined in accordance with dictionary sense, which is covered under Section 2(ii) to (iv) of FCA, 1980s ; and
  3. an area which is actually classified as a forest in government records.
Thus, by the “dictionary meaning” many non-recorded forest land having “a large or extensive tract having dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc.” automatically comes under the preview of Section 2 of the 1980 Act which restricts the use of forest lands for “non-forest purposes” and states that no State government shall direct the use of such land for non-forest activities without the “prior approval” of the Central government.
The proposed amendment will affect the definition of “forest land” duly defined under Section 2 (d) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which defines "forest land" means land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, un-demarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks. Thus, the definition of “forest land” under FRA has a wider perspective and includes the dictionary meaning of Forest land duly ruled by the Supreme Court.
In the same Godaverman judgment of 1996, the Supreme Court also directed State governments to set up committees to identify such areas coming under the jurisdiction of “dictionary meaning of "forests", irrespective of ownership or whether they are notified, recognized or classified under any law.
Following the Supreme Court direction, the Government of Odisha set up District Level Committees (DLCs) consisting of district collectors and district forest officers (DFOs) at district levels and in whole state and have identified about 662251.96 acres of “DLC forest area” constituting 4.40% (which also includes private forest) of State total forest land having 39.16 % (100%) of forest land to its GA. The State Forest Department shares 43.32 % while the Revenue Department shares 52.26 % of the total forest land.
Activists of Odisha have raised serious concern over the implication of the proposed amendment and have criticized the Central government. Citing the land record scenario of Niyamgiri Hills, they have claimed that if the proposed amendment is passed, the rights of the tribal community of Niyamgiri and other parts of the state will be adversely affected.
While there is physical growth of dense forest in the boundaries of 12 villages (villages where Gram Sabha were held against Vedanta based on the 18th April, 2023 Supreme Court judgment), the land record (RoR) analysis shows that there are in total 3634.54 acres of land is these 12 revenue villages of which lion share 3467.94 acres constituting 95.42 constitutes government land and only 174 .41 acres constituting 4.72 % acres are under private ownership.
Out of the total 3634.54 acres of village land, there are only 106.54 constituting 2.93% of recorded forest land available in these 12 revenue villages and it is only 3.07 per cent of the total government land available in these 12 villages. “While there is dense forest growth over common lands of these 12 villages, they are mostly recorded as uncultivable waste land (Abada Ajogya Anabadi) in the village revenue record”, Odisha’s activists alleged.
It was alleged that the proper ground verification based on the Supreme Court’s direction of 1996 was not followed in identifying such “forest growth area” as per the dictionary meaning of forest as a result of which many non-recorded forest patches were left out under the purview of DLC land forest land by the district level committees.
Thus, if the proposed amendment to 1980s FCA by the Central government is passed by the Parliament, then the dictionary meaning of forest will not be applied to such unrecorded forest land and such land would be out of purview of Section 2 of FCA, 1980 and the government won’t require approval of Gram Sabha under FRA, 2006 and approval of the Central government, they alleged.
It is to be noted in 2018, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik had to stop tree felling in non-recoded forests/ recorded gochars/ grazing land and cancelled the leased granted to a Kolkata-based company for a beer factory after protest by the locals who were protecting and depending over that forest. The administration wanted to go ahead with felling valuable sal trees which would have adversely affected their tribals' and local environment.
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*With Foundation for Ecological Security, Maharahstra, as Forest Rights Lead

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