Indian Forest Act,
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This article is written by Mehak Jain who is currently pursuing law at the Hidayatullah National Law University. This is an exhaustive article that aims to deal with penalties and procedures under the forest act.

Introduction

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 consolidated all previous legislation regarding forests and forest produce prior to the 1920s. The Act empowered the government and Forest Department to create Reserved Forests and to use them for government use alone.

Some important terms to be understood to enhance understanding of the Act are:

  • Forest officer: 

Any person or officer, empowered by State Government to carry out the purposes of this Act, shall be a Forest-officer.

  • Forest offense:

The offenses which are punishable under this Act or under any rule made therein are regarded as Forest offenses.

  • Forest-produce:

This term has a wide ambit. It includes timber, charcoal, catechu, wood oil, resin, lac, natural varnish bark, kuth, etc. It also includes the following, found in forests, such as trees, leaves, flowers, fruits, and all other parts, plants other than trees including grass, creepers, reeds, etc. and all parts of such plants, and wild animals and skins, tusks, horns, bones, silk, cocoons, etc and peat, surface, soil, rock, and minerals.

  • Timber:

It includes fallen trees/ trees felled on purpose, and all wood whether cut up or fashioned or hollowed out for any purpose.

For the purpose of forest conservation, it prescribes a penalty for offenses committed under it under Chapter IX. This involves the seizure of property, confiscation of produce, imprisonment, fine, etc.

Section 52: Seizure of property liable to confiscation

Forest officers or Police-Officers, if they have sufficient reason to believe that a forest-offense has been committed with respect to forest-produce, are authorized, as per Section 52 of this Act, to seize such produce together with tools, boats, vehicles or cattle which might have been used in committing such offense.

If such officer has reason to believe that a vehicle is being used for transportation of forest-produce (in respect of which he/she believes an offense might have been committed) can stop such vehicle and cause it to remain stationary for a time-period which is adequate to examine the contents of the vehicle and inspect all records relating to goods being carried in the vehicle.

A mark shall be placed on such property/ receptacle/ vehicle carrying the produce by the Officer, depicting the same as being seized. A report of the same is to be made to the Magistrate, who shall then decide whether to try the offense on account of which seizure has been made or not.

Section 53: Power to release property seized 

According to Section 53, the power to release property seized under Section 52 of the Act lies with any Forest-Officer, whose rank is equivalent to that of a Ranger, or his/her subordinate who has seized any tools/ boats/ vehicles or cattle after having the owner execute a bond for the production of the property so released, to present before the Magistrate if and when required, to try such forest offense.

Section 54: Procedures on receipt by Magistrate on report of seizure

The Magistrate, on receiving the report made by the Officer who seized property of a person (who he had reason to believe was a forest-offender), shall take suitable measures to go on with arrest and trial of such offender, and for the disposal of property according to law.

Section 55: Forest-produce, tools, etc., when liable to confiscation

By the order of the convicting court, the following forest-produce, tools, etc. are liable to forfeiture

  1. All timber or forest produce not owned by the Government, and in respect of which a forest-offense has been committed; and
  2. All tools, boats, vehicles, and cattle used in committing such “offense”.

Section 56: Disposal of produce in respect of which a forest-offense was committed on the conclusion of the trial

When the trial of any forest-offense comes to an end, what is left to be decided is how the produce in question will be disposed of.

  1. If the property in question belongs to the Government or has been forfeited- a Forest officer is to take charge of such property.
  2. In any other case, such property is to be disposed off, as per the law.

Section 57: Procedure when offender unknown, or cannot be found

In cases where forest-offender is unknown or cannot be found, the Magistrate, if satisfied that an offense has been committed is entitled to order the property in respect to which an offense has been committed to be forfeited along with tools, boats, etc. and taken charge of by the Forest officer/ a person whom the Magistrate deems entitled to the same.

However, no such order shall be made before the expiry of one month, starting from the date of seizing such property, or without hearing the person who is accused of committing a forest-offense.

Section 58: The procedure as to perishable property seized

If the property seized is perishable, i.e. subject to speedy and natural decay, the Forest Officer making such seizure may sell the same and deal with the proceeds as he/she would’ve dealt had such property not been sold and report about every such sale to his/her official superior.

Section 59: Appeal from orders

Any person who is interested in the seized property, or the officer who seized the property, or any of his/her official seniors may file an appeal within one month from the date of order. The appeal should be made to the Court which gave out such order and the order passed on such appeal shall be final.

Section 60: The property when to vest in Government

The property/its portion shall belong to the Government, free from all encumbrances, provided that it follows both the following conditions-

  1. An order for forfeiture has been passed, as the case may be; and
  2. No such appeal is preferred/ if an appeal is preferred, the Appellate Court confirms such order in respect of such property.

Section 61: Saving of power to release property seized

An officer empowered by the State government is at any time entitled to direct the immediate release of any property seized which is not the property of Government as well as to withdraw any charge made in respect of such property. No provisions of the Act shall be deemed to prevent it.

Section 62: Punishment for wrongful seizure 

There are safeguards also to the power of Forest Officers, to keep them in check and make sure that they don’t abuse them. If a Forest officer/ Police officer, on the pretense of seizing property under this Act, wrongly seize any such property, he/she shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 6 months, or a fine which may extend to Rs. 500, or both. If the convicting court is of the opinion that any fine so imposed, or a portion thereof is to be given to the aggrieved person, such amount shall be given to him/ her as compensation.

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Section 63: Penalty for counterfeiting or defacing marks on trees and timber and for altering boundary-marks

The penalty prescribed for-

  1. Knowingly counterfeiting the identification mark affixed by Forest Officials, to indicate that such timber/ tree belongs to the Government or of some person, to cause a presumption that such produce has been lawfully cut/ removed;
  2. Altering/ defacing/ destroying such identity mark placed on timber/ tree under the authority of a Forest Officer;
  3. Altering/defacing/destroying/moving any boundary mark of a forest or wasteland to which this Act applies;

Ranges from imprisonment which may extend up to 2 years, or with fine, or both. 

Section 69: The presumption that forest-produce belongs to the Government

If a question arises as to the question of the authority of the government, to any forest produce, during proceedings taken under this Act/ in the response of anything done under this Act, it shall be produced that such product is the property of the Government until the contrary is proved.

Various Powers under the Act

Section 64: Power to arrest without warrant

This Act confers the power to arrest, without a warrant and without orders from a Magistrate, on any Forest-Officer, Police Officer or Revenue-Officer, provided that the person so arrested gave a whiff of reasonable suspicion in respect to any forest offense punishable with imprisonment for one month or may even extend.

If an officer makes an arrest under this provision, he/she is expected to release in bond, take or send the person arrested before the Magistrate having jurisdiction in the case, or to the officer in charge of the nearest police station without causing any unnecessary delay.

Section 65: Power to release a person arrested on a bond.

In case the person arrested executes a bond to appear, if and when required, before the Magistrate or before the officer-in-charge of the nearest police station, he/she has to be released without any prejudice. Such person can be released by any Forest Officer of a rank equivalent or superior to that of a Ranger, any Police-Officer of a rank equivalent or superior to that of a Sub-Inspector or any Revenue Officer of a rank equivalent or superior to that of a Mahalkari or Tahsildar who (or whose subordinate) was responsible for making such arrest.

Section 66- Power to prevent the commission of the offense

The Act authorizes any Forest Officer, Police Officer and Revenue Officer to intervene and prevent for the purpose of preventing the commission of any offense.

Section 67- Power to try offenses summarily. 

As per the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, any Magistrate (of the first class) specially empowered in this behalf by the State Government in consultation with the High Court may try summarily a forest offense punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to and not exceeding one year, or fine which may extend to Rs. 2000, or both. The provisions of Sections 262 to 265 (both inclusive) of the said Code are applicable to such a trial. Not countering anything in the said Code, in case of conviction for any offense in a summary trial, the Magistrate may pass a sentence for imprisonment for any term for which such offense is punishable under the Act.

Section 68- Power to compound offenses. 

Section 68 says that the State Government can empower a Forest Officer (by notification in the Official Gazette) to accept a sum of money or (on his/her discretion) an undertaking in writing to pay a sum of money as compensation from a person about whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed any forest offense other than an offense specified in Section 62 or Section 63 of the Act.

When the suspected person has made the payment or accepted to give an undertaking in writing to pay such named value, or both, to the Officer, the Officer must discharge the property, if any, seized and no further proceedings are to be taken against such person or property.

To be empowered under this provision, the Forest Officer should not be of a rank inferior to that of a Ranger, and he/she should also receive a monthly salary amounting to at least Rs 100.

It is important to note that the sum of money agreed to be charged under this provision, in no circumstance, is to exceed the sum of Rs. 500.

Conclusion

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was largely based on and took its inspiration from previous Indian Forest Acts implemented under colonial rule. The most famous one was the Indian Forest Act of 1878. Both Acts aimed to consolidate and reserve the areas having forest cover, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce. 

The Act prescribes a penalty for offenses committed under it. On skimming through it, it might seem that the Forest-Officer is the all mighty, however, a clearer understanding of the Act depicts that there are certain safeguards in place to keep him/ her in check too. The Act, later on, went to take the shape of the Forest Conservation Act of 1870 as it was realized that focus on timber conservation alone was not sufficient.


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