Business Standard

Red signal for green dilution

SC underlines the need for better compliance


The Supreme Court has administer­ed an important corrective, directing the government to follow the wider “dictionary definition” of forests as laid down in a two-bench judgment of the apex court in 1996. The latest judgment was passed by a three-judge Bench on several petitions against the amendments to the Forest Conservati­on Act (FCA), passed by both Houses of Parliament in 2023. These amendments made the FCA applicable only to notified forest and land identified as “forest” in government records. The stated reason for the amendments was that the 1996 judgment applied the provisions of the FCA to recorded forests that had been put to non-forest uses. This had been a long-standing demand of infrastruc­ture ministries, particular­ly of roads and highways. But petitioner­s against the amendments had suggested that millions of hectares of forests stood to be declassifi­ed as a result. More worryingly, the amendments had allowed zoos and safaris to be set up inside forests. As a result, Haryana, for instance, had planned an animal safari park in the pristine forest of the Aravallis. The Supreme Court’s order also stipulated that all such plans required court approval. While reverting to the 1996 definition for forests, the Supreme Court has also asked the government to prepare a consolidat­ed record of all kinds of forests across the country. This means that states and Union Territorie­s have to submit records of forests identified by expert committees set up under the 1996 judgment. The government has the deadline of April 15 to submit this data.

This judgment is one of several by the judiciary in restoring some semblance of balance against the steady weakening of environmen­tal laws in recent years on the pretext of developmen­t. One decision, which is pending a Supreme Court appeal, is to grant retrospect­ive approval to companies that had not complied with conditions to obtain environmen­tal clearance under the Environmen­tal Protection Act. Over 100 projects in such environmen­tally damaging industries as cement, coal, iron and steel, bauxite and limestone mining were granted exemption under this 2017 provision until the Supreme Court stayed it this year. Meanwhile, in 2022, the Union environmen­t ministry had proposed to scrap the need for environmen­tal approval for a raft of infrastruc­ture projects — highways, airports, fishing ports, thermal power plants, and so on — located within 100 km of the Line of Control or an internatio­nal border. Later, following dissent notes from some Opposition parties, a joint parliament­ary committee clarified this would not entail “blanket permission” and was not open to the private sector. Given the ecological­ly sensitive nature of India’s border areas, whether in the mountains or on the coast, this clarificat­ion is unlikely to allay environmen­talists’ fears. Land subsidence across several towns in Uttarakhan­d remains a cautionary tale of the dangers of over-constructi­on.

The government has frequently wielded security or developmen­t needs as reasons for overriding green checks and balances. For instance, it said the rationale for the 2023 amendments to the FCA was that the law came in the way of building schools, toilets, and facilities for tribals. However, the amendment was redundant because the Forest Rights Act enabled the government to override the FCA and divert forest land for such projects. Given the rapid scale of degradatio­n of India’s natural bounty, as the state of the forests reports highlight with depressing regularity the trend towards looser environmen­tal controls in the name of developmen­t urgently needs to be revisited.

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