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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Safe, for now: Editorial on Supreme Court directing government to return to ‘dictionary definition’ of forests

Value that dense, undisturbed forests hold not only for protecting ecosystems but also for sustaining forest-dwelling communities cannot be stressed enough. Yet, policy seems unconcerned

The Editorial Board Published 26.02.24, 07:24 AM
Supreme Court of India.

Supreme Court of India. File Photo

Official attempts to redefine forests altogether have thankfully been stopped in their tracks by the highest court of the land. The Supreme Court effectively suspended last year’s amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, directing the government to return to the “dictionary definition” of forests in its ruling in 1996 while implementing policy for forest land use. The fact that the apex court has returned to its earlier verdict in adjudicating petitions against the controversial amendment speaks volumes of attempts to subvert the letter of the law to exploit forest resources; these, however, are not unique to the current dispensation. Even so, the mischievous reworking of the legal language to exclude large tracts of forests which had not been part of pre-1980 government records or those which fall within 100 kilometres of an international border — the petitions referred to these steps as substantial dilutions — is illustrative of concerted efforts to renegotiate the protective ambit of conservation policy in recent years. The Centre’s argument was that the amendments would do away with the red tape that had to be cut through to organise permits for infrastructure projects on forested land. This despite a report about wildlife conservation in Madhya Pradesh published by the Comptroller and Auditor General that raised the spectre of habitat fragmentation and stated that “linear infrastructure” like roads, railways and dams posed “the greatest threat of harmful impact on wildlife”. The value that dense, undisturbed forests hold not only for protecting diverse ecosystems but also for sustaining forest-dwelling communities cannot be stressed enough. Yet, policy seems unconcerned. Monoculture plantations began to be categorised as forests, while community rights of forest-dwelling communities envisaged in the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been weakened.

The amendment struck down by the apex court is seemingly part of a wider thrust to enfeeble the legislative shield protecting India’s biodiversity — punitive measures for felling trees in a reserved forest being replaced with a paltry fine is another example of this. This derives from a faulty idea of envisioning the environment as a resource to be exploited ceaselessly. A paradigm shift towards accountability for those in power is necessary; but that can only happen if environmental degradation becomes an issue of public interest.

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