Monday, February 19, 2024

‘forest’ will continue to have dictionary meaning: Supreme Court

On February 19, 2024, in an interim order in Ashok Kumar Sharma v. Union of India, the Supreme Court directed that the expression ‘forest’ will continue to be “broad and all-encompassing” and include 1.97 lakh square km of undeclared forest lands. A Bench headed by Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud, Chief Justice of India passed the order on a petition challenging the amended Forest Conservation Act of 2023. The new amendments had “circumscribed or substantially diluted” the definition of forest to two categories — declared forests and lands recorded as ‘forests’ in government records after 1980.

Earlier on November 30, 2023, the Supreme Court bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha passed an order saying, "It is the contention of the learned senior counsel for the petitioners that the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 has an effect of diluting the definition of forest as defined by this Court in the judgment of this Court passed on 12.12.1996 in T.N. Godavarman v. Union of India in W.P. (C) No.202/1995. 4. It is submitted that as per T.N. Godavarman judgment (supra) the forest as understood in accordance with the dictionary sense are also included in the definition of forest. 5. It is further submitted that Section 1A is likely to restrict the definition of forest and exclude the aforesaid category of forest, as understood in accordance with the dictionary sense, from the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act. 6. Shri Balbir Singh learned Additional Solicitor General of India, on instructions, makes a statement that there is no intention to dilute the scope of forest as defined in the judgment of this Court in T.N. Godavarman (supra). He submits that the exemptions which will be granted under sub-section (2) of Section 1A would be in accordance with the guidelines that the Central Government would be notifying in accordance with sub-section (3) thereof. He submits that the guidelines are being finalized and would be notified in a short period. However, in order to address the concern of the petitioners, he makes a statement that no precipitative actions will be taken by the Union of India until further orders in respect of the forest, as understood in accordance with the dictionary sense."

The last verdict in the T.N. Godavarman case was passed on January 31, 2024 "in the context of institutionalisation and reconstitution of the Central Empowered Committee. The CEC was originally directed to be constituted by an order of this Court dated 09.05.2002."  In IA No. 295 in WP(C) No. 202/1995 reported as T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, (2013) 8 SCC 198. Pursuant to the said direction, a notification dated 17.09.2002 was issued by the Central Government constituting the CEC as a statutory authority under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. For long CEC functioned as an ad hoc body. This judgement was passed by the bench comprising of Justices B.R. Gavai, Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha and Prashant Kumar Mishra. 

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a Notification dated 05.09.2023 under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, constituting the CEC as a permanent body for  “the purposes of monitoring and ensuring compliance of the orders of the Supreme Court covering the subject matter of Environment, Forest and Wildlife, and related issues arising out of the said orders and to suggest measures and recommendations   generally   to   the   State,   as   well   as   Central Government, for more effective implementation of the Act and other orders of the Court”. By its order dated 18.08.2023, the Court approved this Notification and "declared that the CEC shall continue to function subject to such orders and directions that this Court may pass from time to time."


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