This article is written by Sushmita Choudhary.
Table of Contents
India acquires the 10th position amongst all the countries in terms of forest area. According to the India State Forest Report 2017, “the total forest cover of the county is 708,273 sq km, which is 21.54% of India’s geographical area. The tree cover of the country has been estimated to be 93, 815 sq km, which is 2.85%”.
Understanding Reserved, Protected and Village Forests
Reserved forests constitute more than half of the total forest area of India. It has a certain degree of protection. They are protected by the respective state governments unlike wildlife sanctuaries and national parks which are supervised by the Government of India. It is considered as the most valuable type of forest from the perspective of conservation. Rights to activities like collecting timber or grazing cattle or hunting and public entry are banned in these forests.
Protected forests are of two types: demarcated and undemarcated. They have a limited amount of protection. These are looked after by the government but certain activities like hunting, grazing or timber collecting are allowed to people who live on the boundaries of forests and are partially or wholly dependent on the forest resources for livelihood, provided they don’t cause severe damage to the forests.
Village forests are protected and managed by village communities which are assigned by the state governments. The local communities may use it for timber or other forest produce, pasture, recreation, plantation and so on under prescribed conditions by state governments.
A Glimpse of Efforts and Prior Legislations
The efforts for conservation of forests arose first in South India when a commission for enquiring into the availability of teak in Malabar forests was set up in 1880. By looking into the report by the commission, it was decided that trees below 28 inches of girth should not be felled. In 1885, a Forest Committee constituted for determining the capacity of forests found out that more accessible forests had been exhausted which led to a declaration that teak trees had royalty rights in the south and no unauthorized felling of these trees was permitted.
Brandis, an Inspector General of Forests with Cleghorn as his assistant did their research and came to a conclusion that a separate legislation was necessary in order to not only protect forests but also to ensure proper management by vesting different authorities in different employees of the forest department. Basically, division of work was the need of the hour along with a proper legislation. Subsequently, the first Indian Forest Act was passed in 1865 and came into effect on 1st May, 1865. It empowered the British India government to take over any forest and conserve it but the Act did not extend to Madras presidency because its Board of Revenue held that the villagers had rights over the forests and the government could not take absolute control of it.
Later in 1878, a newer revised version of Indian Forest Act was passed which aimed at removing the drawbacks of the prior Forest Act, 1865. It classifies the forests into three kinds- Reserved forests, Protected forests and Village forests. It also empowered the government to exercise control over all the forest area except for Madras and some other areas.
Indian Forest Act, 1927
The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was passed in 1927 which overrode all previous laws making them invalid. This Act was more effective in nature having 86 sections divided into 13 chapters. Its aims were as follows:
- Consolidating laws relating to forests.
- Transit of forest-produce.
- Levying duties on timber and other forest-produce.
This Act empowers the government to take authority of private forests owned by private owners if it is “needed for a public purpose” as given under section 4 (Land Acquisition Act, 1894). This Act does not define the term “forests”.
Section 2 of the Forest Act, 1927 has given the meaning of certain words like cattle, forest produce, forest officer, forest offence, river, timber and tree which is effective in determining the true definition of these words leading to accuracy of the legislation. The word “forest produce” does not include “ivory” in its definition. Under section 77 of the Act, “Any person contravening any rule under this Act, for the contravention of which no special penalty is provided, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month, or fine which may extend to five hundred rupees, or both”.
This Act laid an example for framing State Forest Acts. It boosted the government tax revenue also by laying imposition of duty on timber.
Cons of Indian Forest Act, 1927
This Act was apparently made in order to ease the process of conservation of forests and improving the management for the same. However, a thorough probation signifies that it emphasizes on:
- Extensive cutting down of trees legally.
- Making profit from felling the trees and the products made out of it.
It deprived the poor and tribal sections of the society of their ancestral and acquired lands. This Act paved a way for the government to make profit out of the forests by legally using its authority over people thus making them helpless and needy. Even after independence, the profit oriented attitude continued.
Forest Conservation Act, 1980
Article 48 a of the Indian Constitution says that the state government shall make efforts to protect the environment and improve it and also make sure to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. A legislation was enacted by the president mainly to check the rapid cutting of trees and growing deforestation. This Act came to be known as Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This was mainly to conserve more forest areas. A prior approval was to be taken from the government based on stringent grounds in order to de reserve or cut the trees from reserved forest. The approval was to be given by the government on the advice of a committee setup who decided the grounds.
This Act reduces the diversion of forest areas to non forestry use which is in the interest of our ecosystem. It checked the rapid conversion of forest land or resources into profit making sources to maintain a proper balance between rational requirements of the country and the conservation of forests.
According to the Press Information Bureau of India, “The effective implementation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 has successfully brought down the average annual rate of diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes from about 1. 37 lakh hectare per annum during the thirty years period immediately before its enactment, to about 0. 37 lakh hectare per annum during the same period i.e. thirty years, of its existence”.
This Act monitors the needs for diversion of forest land based on the severity of water projects, power projects, transmission lines, mining, etc. which are inevitably necessary for the human population as given under the rules and guidelines of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The Act also deals with the idea of compensatory afforestation. As per this Act, whenever a forest area needs to be granted approval for diverting it to non-forestry purposes, the same proportion of forest land has to be identified for compensatory afforestation. The funds to meet the afforestation process is also important to be mentioned. Any private or government body in order to carry on a project must apply for approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The proposal for forest land acquiring should be submitted to the respective department which should include the details of the degraded forest land mentioning its area map, yearly statistics about forestry operations, details of species and cost analysis of all the operations. If it obliges to the rules and guidelines laid by this Act, then compensation for the degraded forest area is decided by the ministry and concerned forest department.
Forest Right Act, 2006
The government in order to redress the injustices done to the forest dwelling communities since colonial times, enacted a law called the Forest Rights Act which asserts them to their rights over the forestland on which they were always dependent. This Act also included provisions for increasing conservation and making it more effective. Some basic features of the Act are as follows:
- The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act was enacted on 18th December, 2006 and it came into force January 1, 2008.
- It aims at protecting the rights of forest dwelling communities by giving them access to forest land and resources and hence conserving their lands.
- It gives them the title over their lands to protect their culture and tradition by recognising their community ownership over a larger landscape.
Types of rights under this Act
- Title rights- Ownership of the land would be given to tribals or forest dwellers who have cultivated or farmed it until the date of 13 December, 2005. The forest land shall not exceed 4 hectares. No new land would be granted after the given date.
- Use rights- They are entitled to use water bodies, grazing areas, pastoralist routes which they have been doing since before.
- Relief and development rights- They have the rights to rehabilitation in case someone forces them illegally to evict their lands or basic amenities. They are however subject to reasonable restrictions. If they wish to convert old habitation, unsurveyed villages or other parts of forest into revenue forest, they are entitled to do that.
- Forest management rights- They have the right to protect, conserve or regenerate any forest produce that they have been traditionally doing. They are entitled to manage and conserve forests.
This Act has been the subject of considerable controversy in India.
Supporters of the Forest Right Act, 2006
The supporters of this Act claim that it is not a land distribution measure as no new land after the date of 13 December, 2005 would be granted. The tribals and forest dwellers have been deprived of their lands and met with injustices since historical times. Therefore to redress to their rights over their ancestral lands over which they have been traditionally dependent, this Act is justified. Forest dwellers have been victims of forceful evictions to serve the purpose of commercial and developmental projects like dams, industries and power plants, so they are not the reason for degrading forests and its resources. Supporters have argued that rights given to the forest community will actually improve conservation of forests.
Opposition of Forest Right Act, 2006
Many environmentalists and wildlife activists have shown concern over this since beginning. Most of them view it as a land distribution measure and also look from the perspective that it will create human presence in wildlife conservation. The Ministry of Environment and Forests expressed its view terming this Act as a perfect recipe for destroying India’s forests and wildlife by”legalizing encroachments”. Tiger preservation was an enhanced concern of the wildlife conservationists.
Madras Forest Act, 1882
This Act was made with a view to provide for the constitution of eminent forests as State reserves under the Madras presidency. The objective was to obtain forest lands either by providing arrangements or due compensation to private proprietors or else give them such rights which would make encroachments in the future impossible. This was an effective measure for conservation of forests. This Act is the first forest act in this presidency. The Act borrowed ideas from the Indian Forest Act of 1878 and Burma Forest Act of 1881 with considerable and convenient modifications.
This Act empowered the government to appoint Forest Settlement Officers to look into the matter and record all concerned private rights that could be exercised by proprietors of selected forest lands. Upon the assessment given by these officers, appeals could be made regarding forest land within 30 days for claims involving proprietary rights. For the claims regarding forest use such as rights of way, rights to pasture or rights to water bodies, appeals could be made within 60 days before the Revenue Officer. After the settlement of all the claims and enquiries, the government would take control of the forest land for preservation of forests and would be declared as ‘reserved’.
This Act gave power to the government of interference with private forests. The government facilitated its conservation by placing it under Government management. The government got the right to transport timber and use it for whatever purpose it deemed necessary, undergoing rules and regulations so as to prevent smuggling of forest revenue. The Act deals with penalties but the drawback here is that a police officer or forest officer by giving special notice could arrest any person for a forest offence without orders from the Magistrate.
The Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests Act, 1949
After being enacted as a temporary act, this was made a permanent act in 1965. The Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882, had provisions of regulating private forests under section 29 which were adequate enough to attain the objectives set out in this Act. Also considering the provisions of this Act, there was not much need of making a new act that is The Tamil Nadu Preservation Act, 1949 for private forests. In case of additional provisions, respective amendments could have been inserted in the 1882 Act itself.
This Act brought the requirement of continuous land area from 12 to just 2 hectares which affected the small farmers. Also, it did not mention any specific reason or guidelines for the declaration of ceasing private land to make private forests.
Even if additional provisions were required to be enacted, suitable amendments could have been incorporated in the Act of 1882. Earlier, land of more than twelve hectares of continuous area was covered by the Act and in 1979 it had been brought down to two hectares. A more rational requirement could have been prevention of natural disaster or defeating soil erosion. But without any such criteria, it failed to contribute to the welfare of people and went against the principle of natural justice. Even in colonial times when the Tamil Nadu Prevention Act was enacted, the issue of notice to the owner was provided before any regulation on private land but under this Act, the government could deprive the owner of land without any warrant or rationale.
The Tamil Nadu Hill Areas (Preservation of Trees) Act of 1955
This Act came into force on September 2, 1955 as a result of indiscriminate cutting down of trees in hill areas which led to deforestation resulting in soil erosion. As a result, the government of Tamil Nadu made this Act including provisions for reducing felling of trees and ongoing cultivation. This Act resulted in forming committees for checking the cutting of trees, cultivation of cereals, rubbers and other cash crops. It also included penalties for breaching the guidelines. A prior written permission was required by the committee to cut or fell any tree if it constituted danger to life and property. The committee in order to make the decision upon it should take at least two months meeting which was utterly redundant and insensitive to public interest.
As can be derived from the above explanation of legislations regarding conservation of forests, the main objective of the colonial government was to make profit out of the extensive forest land and forest produce. The first step taken for the conservation of forests was taken in the form of Indian Forest Act, 1927 which issued guidelines and limitations on government for directly acquiring forest land from owners. It laid down some ground rules for making private forests and reserved forests. However, the state interfered in private land to a great extent.
A great shift however took place after independence with the enactment of Forest (Conservation) Act in 1980 which primarily focused on reducing the diversion of forest land to non forest-purposes. Also the Forest Right Act having its own pros and cons proved somewhat effective in conservation of wildlife and forests. But on the other hand, due to liberal implementation of the conservation acts, large tracts of forest areas still continue to be used for agriculture, construction of dams, industries, etc. What I find is that we should implement the laws in a stricter manner and its implementation should be thoroughly checked by the forest officials, otherwise these laws would be just redundant.
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