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Meghalaya amendment decried - Forum asks Mooshahary not to approve of forest act

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ANDREW W. LYNGDOH   |   Published 27.12.12, 12:00 AM

Shillong, Dec. 26: The Meghalaya government has come under fire for passing an amendment to an act with the purpose of defining a “forest” area.

During the winter session of the Assembly, Meghalaya Forest (Amendment) Bill, 2012, was passed by the House.

The amendment bill was made in relation to the Meghalaya Forest Regulation Act, 1973.

According to the amendment, “An area would be considered a forest if it is a compact or continuous tract of minimum four hectares of land, irrespective of ownership, where more than 250 naturally growing trees per hectare of 15cm and higher diameter of breast height over bark are present, or more than 100 naturally growing bamboo clumps per hectare are present in case of the tracts containing predominantly sympodial bamboo.”

However, if 60 per cent of the tract is covered with trees and 40 per cent with bamboo, then the qualifying numbers shall be more than 150 trees of 15cm and higher diameter of breast height over bark and more than 40 bamboo clumps per hectare, for identifying such areas as forest.

The Meghalaya People’s Environment Rights Forum and the Federation of Khasi-Jaintia and Garo People have petitioned Governor R.S. Mooshahary, requesting him not to give approval to the bill.

“The sudden urgency to redefine ‘forest’ without taking public opinion and maintaining optimal transparency is obviously not intended at enhancing conservation and increasing forest cover, but on the contrary provide a licence to deforest with impunity,” N. Bhattacharjee, forum convener, said in a petition submitted to Mooshahary today.

Bhattacharjee said the amendment is “unique” in the sense that it shall now take hundreds of hectares outside the purview of the forest, with the sole motive of diverting such forest for non-forestry purpose, mainly mining.

“This is probably the first time in the history of our country where a forest amendment is proposed not to preserve, but annihilate whatever little forest cover remains in Meghalaya today,” he added.

Further, he pointed out that the amendment would have long-term implications on the rural economy, and prove catastrophic for a majority of the indigenous population of the state whose lives are dependent on forests.

Pointing out the lacunae in the bill, the forum convener said the bill and the definition of forest was in total contravention of the Supreme Court’s order in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and others case.

“In its order, the apex court had clarified that the word “forest” must be understood according to the dictionary meaning of the term, since Indian Forest Act, 1927, does not define forest, and the legal extent of forests depends upon the process of notifications,” Bhattacharjee said.

“As of now what is followed is based on the Supreme Court’s definition of forest,” he added.

The forum demanded the establishment of a “green tribunal” in the state, wherein it would be an autonomous body comprising social activists, environmentalists, academicians, nominated political members from the various parties and nominated heads from traditional groups and media professionals from all over the state, particularly the rural areas.

The body, it said, will be the key organ for giving clearances, reviewing, monitoring, assessing and also implementing policies related specifically to environment protection and conservation.

“For every project passed from the single window agency, appropriate clearance from this green tribunal shall be compulsory,” the forum stated.

“We appeal to you to kindly withhold granting assent to the bill,” the forum pleaded before the governor.

Bhattacharjee also requested the governor to send back the bill to the state government for a detailed deliberation on the issue, including deducing opinion of technical and legal experts and also from the general public before finally deciding either in favour or against the amendment.

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