[Explainer] What is a forest?

What is a forest?

At present, in India, there is no clear nationally-accepted definition of ‘forest’. States are responsible for determining their definition of forests.

In its meeting in September 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) deliberated on the issue of the definition of a forest. The FAC observed that “there cannot be any uniform criteria to define forest which can be applicable to all forest types” in all states and union territories.

Subsequently, in November 2019, the environment ministry sent a letter to all state governments. It noted that India has a number of forest types and there are variations even within those forest types.

“As far as developing criteria for ‘deemed forests’ is concerned, there cannot be any uniform criteria applicable to all forest types or all states. There has to be different criteria for different forest types or states,” said the ministry.

It even emphasised that the states, having well-established forest departments, are in a better position, rather than the MoEFCC, to understand their own forests and needs, and should frame criteria for their forests. It clarified that the criteria so finalised by a state, need not be subject to the ministry’s approval.

The prerogative of the states to define forests stems from a 1996 Supreme Court order called the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad versus the Union of India judgment, where the debate over defining a forest came to the fore.

What is the Godavarman Thirumulpad judgment?

In 1995, T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad filed a writ petition with the Supreme Court of India to protect the Nilgiris forest land from deforestation by illegal timber operations. Thirumulpad was the erstwhile royalty of Nilambur, the teak-bearing forested western slopes of the Nilgiris mountain block. In the pre-Independence system the forests around Nilambur – falling within the present day Kerala and Tamil Nadu – belonged to his family, and were later nationalised into Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

This petition, starting with a stop on illegal operations in a Tamil Nadu forest, went on to influence the national forest policy and has ever since brought up varying opinions on the impact of the judgment on India’s forests.

Rainforests. Photo by Ashwin Kumar.

One of the aspects of the judgement is related to the meaning of the word “forest”. In the judgement, the Supreme Court interpreted that the word “forest” must be understood according to its “dictionary meaning”. This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise.

The judgement ordered state governments to constitute an expert committee to identify, notify and demarcate areas as forests, and provided further guidelines for use of forest area, including diverting forestland for non-forest use, under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

The watershed legal intervention has been debated for its effectiveness but in the absence of a nationally accepted definition of “forests”, it has served as the guiding light for the implementation of national forest-related policies.

German roots to the origin of British forest policy in India

When India was a British colony, the idea was to use Indian forest resources for the expanding British industry, and also to support the growing network of  railways. In their classical book, This fissured land: An ecological history of India, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha state about the period in the mid-19th Century where forest trees were needed to lay wooden sleepers for expanding railway line network. Forests bearing teak, sal and deodar trees had to be held in reserve so that they could be used as and when needed.

“The imperial forest department was formed in 1864, with the help of experts from Germany, the country which was at that time the leading European nation in forest management,” Gadgil and Guha wrote. “The first inspector-general of forests, Dietrich Brandis, had been a botanist at Bonn University before his assignment in India. The awesome task of checking the deforestation of past decades required, first and foremost, forging legal mechanisms to assert and safeguard state control over forests.”

The first attempt at state monopoly, according to them, was through the Indian Forest Act of 1865, which was replaced 13 years later by a far more comprehensive piece of legislation.

Tracking the history of forest laws and policy in India, Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz in Environmental law and policy in India (second edition, 2001) write that when India gained Independence forests were placed under the State List of the Constitution. “Forest departments of individual states continued to regulate forests in accord with the Indian Forest Act of 1927, as implemented by state regulations. The Act gives the states jurisdiction over both public and private forests and facilitates the extraction of timber for profit.”

The 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution of 1976 moved forests from the State List to the Concurrent List of the Constitution. This gave powers to the Union Government to administer forests along with the state governments. The powers of the Union Government got consolidated when the department and later ministry of environment and forests was established in the mid-1980s.

What are the key policies that govern India’s forests?

India’s forests are currently governed by the National Forest Policy of 1988, an update to which has been in the offing for nearly four years now.

The first National Forest Policy (NFP) in independent India came into effect in 1952. Thereafter, in 1988, a new version of the NFP came into being. The latest version has been in the offing for nearly four years now but a final version is yet to be made public.

Key policies that currently govern India’s forests and regulate activities include Forest Conservation Act 1980, National Forest Policy 1988, Indian Forest Act 1927, Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996, Forest Rights Act 2006, Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act 2016, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

Coming at the heels of the 42nd Amendment, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. This Act prohibits state governments from denotifying a reserved forest, or diversion of forest land to any non-forest purpose, without prior purpose of the national government.

The National Forest Policy of 1988 set the national goal ” to have a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country under forest or tree cover. In the hills and in mountainous regions, the aim should be to maintain two-third of the area under such cover in order to prevent erosion and land degradation and to ensure the stability of the fragile eco-system.”

Through the 73rd and the 74th Amendment of the Constitution in 1992, devolution of power was made possible to the three-tier panchayati raj system in the rural and the urban settings. However, this devolution of power remained a mirage for tribal areas of the country which were listed under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.  To rectify this situation, the Parliament enacted the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, thereby taking devolution of power to tribal populations.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 is a logical extension of the 1996 legislation. The FRA recognises and acknowledges the traditional rights of tribal communities on access and use of forest resources, and provides a framework of recording and making effective those rights.

The Compensatory Afforestation Funds Act 2016 establishes a mechanism for the national government to collect the funds collected for compensatory afforestation (when industries are permitted to divert forests for non-forest use).

Does it really make a difference whether there is a definition of forests or not?

At present, nearly 25 percent of India’s total geographical forest area is under forest and tree cover and the country is pursuing a long-term goal of having 33 percent of its land under forest cover.

Right from industries that require diversion of forest land to tribal communities that rely on forests for their survival and livelihood, forests and their effective management impacts a broad spectrum of people and communities. Additionally, biodiversity conservation is also influenced by forest policy and the definition of forests.

The definition has a direct impact on various aspects of forests, forest dwellers and rights and becomes an important point in legal disputes.

Whether there is a unified definition or not, forests mean much to the lives and livelihoods of people living in and around them. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Sharachchandra Lele and Ajit Menon, writing about forest resources-related tensions in Democratizing forest governance in India, state that ‘what is a forest’ is an innocuous-sounding question that actually cuts quite deep. “Most foresters and ecologists think of a ‘forest’ as a well-defined physical entity, but they do not agree on what that is: foresters include single-species plantations of teak or pine or even exotics such as eucalyptus, while ecologists think of pristine treeland with multiple natural species.”

They continue: “The reason why the definition matters is because the word forest is an emotive one, and in the public mind, there is still a simplistic equation between forests and environmental benefits to the society. But in the churning that has taken place in the last two decades, this simplistic equation is increasingly being questioned. It is being gradually acknowledged that a forest is not a simple ecological entity, but a complex socio-ecological construct in which different forest management systems (and non-forest systems) provide different mixes of benefits to different stakeholders located at varying distances from the forest, and that stakes are ecologically and socially determined.”

So whether there is a unified definition or not, forests mean much to the lives and livelihoods of the communities living in and around them, and provide tangible and intangible ecosystem services to all those living away.


Banner image: Photo by Prasenjeet Yadav.

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