No more ‘deemed Forest’ in Odisha
Ecology and Environment
18th Aug, 2023
The Odisha government has sent a letter to district officials underlining requests to divert forest land for non-forestry purposes, which has now exclusively removed the concept of ‘deemed forest’ in the state.
- After the Parliament passed the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023, in the monsoon session, the Odisha government has taken steps to implement the new law.
- Earlier, nearly half of Odisha’s forest land was ‘deemed forest’.
- Under the new legislation, all forest land diverted for non-forest purposes by any authority before December 12, 1996, will not attract the changes as per the law.
- Also, any survey or exploration will also not be treated as a non- forestry activity.
- The 1996 Godavarman verdict by the Supreme Court enjoined States to bring in such unrecorded land that conformed to the ‘dictionary’ meaning of forest’.
- The judgment mentioned that the “forests, will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in official records, irrespective of ownership.”
What are Deemed Forests?
- Deemed forest is forest land that hasn’t been recorded as such by the Centre or States.
- The concept of deemed forests has not even been clearly defined in any law including the Forest Conservation Act 1980.
- An expert committee constituted by the Karnataka government after the Supreme Court order (in T N Godavarman Thirumalpad (1996) Case) identified ‘deemed forests’ as “land having the characteristic of forests irrespective of the ownership’”. This includes:
- Thickly wooded areas of the Revenue Department not handed over to the Forest Department.
- Thickly wooded areas recommended to be handed over to the Forest Department.
- Thickly wooded land distributed to grantees but not cultivated.
- Thickly wooded plantations of the Forest Department.
What is the dispute around it?
- Overpowering Central government: The latest Forest Survey of India records Odisha as having 52,156 square km of forest coverage, which is 33.50% of the State’s geographical area, as compared to 21.71% of forest cover at the national level.
- However of the nearly 19,200 hectares of forest land diverted nationally for mining between 2017-2022 about 8,000 hectares was from Odisha.
- As, deemed forest has been removed from the definition of forests, Odisha government cannot give land for mining purpose without the consent of Centre.
- Conflicting Article 371 (a): Tribal communities have also stated that it challenges the essence of traditional customary and indigenous ownership rights of the people over their land and forest as per Article 371(a) of the Constitution.
- The community protected forests in tribal districts of the state and bio-cultural habitats of vulnerable tribal groups such as the Dongria Kondhs who have right on deemed forest areas.
- These communities have claimed community forest rights and habitat rights on such forests.
- Thus the removal of the deemed forest areas from the Act could adversely affect the statutory rights of the communities and can open up rich forest and bio-cultural habitats for extraction.