The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has objected to the transfer of thousands of hectares of land without following due process by Chhattisgarh from its Forest to the Revenue Department for setting up industries and for building road, rail, and other infrastructure.
Chhattisgarh government has described these areas as non-forest land that was earlier given “by mistake” to the Forest Department.
Non-Forest Land means an area managed for uses other than for the production of timber and other forest products or for the maintenance of woody vegetation for such indirect benefits as protection of catchment areas, wildlife habitat, or recreation.
Environment Ministry has warned that the land in question is “undemarcated protected forests”, which cannot be used for non-forest purposes without clearance under the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980.
Protected forests are either demarcated or undemarcated, based on whether the limits of the forest have been specified by a formal notification.
Forests in Indian law
Broadly, state Forest Departments have jurisdiction over two types of forests notified under the Indian Forest (IF) Act, 1927:
Reserve Forests (RF), where no rights are allowed unless specified; and
Protected Forests (PF), where no rights are barred unless specified.
Certain forests, such as village or nagarpalika forests, are managed by state Revenue Departments.
The FC Act, 1980, applies to all kinds of forests, whether under the control of the Forest or the Revenue Department.
It requires statutory clearance before forests can be used for any non-forest purpose such as industry, mining, or construction.
In 1976, forests were included in List III (Concurrent List) under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.
The recorded forest area in Chhattisgarh covers 44.21% of its geography.
In March 2022, state government announced that over 300 sq km of “Orange” area in the Bastar region had been handed over to the Revenue Department.
Under the zamindari system, villagers used local malguzari (livelihood concessions) forests for firewood, grazing, etc.
When zamindari was abolished in 1951, malguzari forests came under the Revenue Department.
In 1958, the government of undivided Madhya Pradesh notified all these areas as PFs under the Forest Department.
In 1965, Madhya Pradesh amended the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to allow denotification of PFs and return it to the Revenue Department.
Since 2003, a case has been pending in the Supreme Court on rationalising these orange areas that have remained a bone of contention between the two Departments.
The coming of Forest Conservation Act in 1980, led to a situation where the rights of lakhs of villagers, including those settled by the government through pattas, remained restricted since now the state government required central clearance for non-forest use of forest land.
In 2020, a task force set up by Madhya Pradesh to resolve the deadlock recommended that patta-holders should not be considered encroachers since they were given land by government officials.
In December 1996, the SC defined ‘forest’ after its dictionary meaning, irrespective of the status of the land it stands on. It also defined forestland as any land thus notified on any government record irrespective of what actually stands on that land.
To meet this broad definition, Madhya Pradesh in 1997 framed a “practical yardstick”, an area no smaller than 10 hectares with at least 200 trees per hectare, to identify forests in Revenue areas for handing over to the Forest Department.