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Supreme Court Explains Meaning Of "Forests"; Holds Non-Forest Activities Cannot Be Permitted Without Prior Approval From Central Govt

Ashok KM
21 July 2022 1:34 PM GMT
Supreme Court Explains Meaning Of Forests; Holds Non-Forest Activities Cannot Be Permitted Without Prior Approval From Central Govt
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The Supreme Court held that prior permission of the Central Government is required to allow any change of user of forest or deemed forest land.

The bench comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar, Abhay S. Oka and CT Ravikumar held that the lands covered by the special orders issued under Section 4 of Punjab Land Preservation Act,1900, have all the trappings of forest lands within the meaning of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Therefore, the State Government or competent authority cannot permit its use for non-forest activities without the prior approval of the Central Government with effect from 25th October 1980, the bench held. The court thus directed all the concerned authorities to take action to remove the remaining illegal structures standing on land covered by the special orders and used for non-forest activities on the said lands erected after 25th October 1980, without prior approval of the Central Government, and further to restore status quo ante including to undertake reforestation/afforestation programmes in right earnest.

Background

The court was considering certain writ petitions and appeals filed by owners of owners of marriage halls and restaurants and residents of the land covered under special orders issued under Section 4 PLPA Act. The appeals challenged an order passed by National Green Tribunal restraining the carrying on of any non-forest activities in the lands at village Anangpur (in State of Haryana) covered by the order dated 18th August 1992 issued under Section 4 of Punjab Land Preservation Act,1900. The Tribunal had held that those lands are forest lands within the meaning of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The Appellants are owners of marriage halls and restaurants on the said land. Also, some persons who claim to be the holders of the lands in Villages Anangpur, Ankhir and Mewla Maharajpur in Tehsil Ballabhgarh, District Faribadad in the State of Haryana, filed writ petitions challenging a public notices issued by the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad to remove illegally constructed farm houses/banquet halls/ structures on forest lands.

Issue

Therefore, the common issue raised by Appellants and writ petitioners in these appeals/writ petition, was whether a land covered under a special order issued by the Government of Haryana under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 ('PLPA') is a 'forest land' within the meaning of the (the 1980 Forest Act')?

State Govt/Competent Authority cannot permit such use for non-forest activities without obtaining prior approval from the Central Govt.

To consider this issue, the bench first noted the concept of forest under the 1927 Forest Act and that under the 1980 Forest Act. The bench also noticed the 1980 Act does not provide for an absolute prohibition on the use of any forest land or a part thereof for any non-forest purposes.

"The State Government or any other authority can always permit the use of any forest land or any portion thereof for non-forest purposes only with the prior approval of the Central Government. In a sense, this enactment provides for permissive use of forest land for non-forest activities with the prior approval of the Central Government. Therefore, the owner of a private land which is a forest within the meaning of Section can convert its use for non-forest purposes only after obtaining requisite permission of the State Government or concerned competent authority. However, the State Government or the competent authority, as the case may be, cannot permit such use for non-forest activities without obtaining prior approval from the Central Government. This provision has been made to check further depletion of already depleted green cover and to ensure that only such non forest activities are permitted by the Central Government which will not cause ecological imbalance leading to environmental degradation. Considering the scheme of the 1980 Forest Act, the title holder of a private land which is a forest within the meaning of Section 2 is not divested of his right, title or interest in the land. But there is an embargo on using his forest land for any non-forest activity."

Central Government to regulate non forest use of forest lands

The court observed that the object of the embargo on permitting non-forest use of forest land without prior permission of the Central Government is not to completely prevent the conduct of non-forest activities . It said

"This provision enables the Central Government to regulate non forest use of forest lands. While exercising the power to approve non-forest use, the Central Government is under a mandate to keep in mind the principles of sustainable development as evolved by this Court including in its decision in the case of Rajeev Suri . The embargo imposed by Section 2 ensures that the development and use of a forest land for non-forest use is governed by the principle of sustainable development. In a sense, Section 2 promotes the development work on forest land only to the extent it can be sustained while alleviating environmental concerns. The power given to the Central Government under Section 2 must be exercised by adopting scientific and consistent yardsticks for applying the principles of sustainable development"

Meaning of Forests

Referring to meaning assigned to 'forests' in the judgment in 1997 Godavaraman's case, the bench observed that Section 2 applies to three categories of forests:

i. Statutorily recognized forests such as reserved or protected forests to which clause (i) of Section 2 is applicable;

ii. The forests as understood in accordance with dictionary sense

iii. Any area recorded as a forest in Government records.

The bench then made the following observations regarding category ii and iii.

A large or extensive tract of land having a dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc

When we consider the meaning of a forest or forest land within the meaning of Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2, it has to be a large or extensive tract of land having a dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc. A small isolated plot of land will not come within the ambit of Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 merely because there are some trees or thickets thereon, as opposed to extensive tract of land covered with dense growth of trees and underbrush or plants resembling a forest in profusion or lushness.

Forest Department records also a Government record

If a land is shown as a forest in Government records, it will be governed by Section 2. A Government record is a record maintained by its various departments. A Government record is always made after following a certain process. Only the entries made after following due process can be a part of any Government record. Government records will include land or revenue records, being statutory documents. For the same reason, it will also include the record of the forest department. After all, the forest department is the custodian of forests. It is this department of the State which is under an obligation to protect the forests for upholding the constitutional mandate. Further, it is this department which identifies the forest lands and maintains a record. Therefore, the record maintained by the Forest Department of forest lands after duly identifying the forest lands will necessarily be a Government record.

The court thus observed that whether a particular land is a 'forest land' within the meaning of Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act, is a question which is required to be decided in the facts of each case in the light of the aforesaid parameters.

Have all the trappings of a forest

Further, referring to various provisions of the PLPA, the bench noted that the specific land in respect of which a special order under section 4 of PLPA has been issued will have all the trappings of a forest governed by clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act. It said:

Thus, it appears to us that various restrictions, regulations and prohibitions in different clauses in Section 4 of PLPA can be invoked necessarily in respect of forest lands. Whereas, Section 3 of PLPA contemplates the issuance of a general notification in respect of any area subject to erosion or likely to become liable to erosion when it appears to the State Government that it is desirable to provide for the conservation of sub-soil water or the prevention of erosion. As noted earlier, one of the objectives of PLPA is to prevent erosion of land which may be caused due to 59 deforestation. When the State Government is satisfied that as a result of deforestation or impending deforestation, erosion of a particular area out of the area notified under Section 3 is likely to take place, the State Government may exercise the power under Section 4 by issuing a special order. The reason is that the measures provided in Section 4 are intended to prevent deforestation of a forest area. Section 3 of PLPA contemplates the issuance of a notification in respect of a larger area when it is desirable to provide for the conservation of sub-soil water or prevention of erosion. When the State Government is satisfied that deforestation of a forest area forming part of a larger area notified under Section 3 is likely to lead to erosion of soil, the power under Section 4 can be exercised. Therefore, it follows that the specific land in respect of which a special order under section 4 of PLPA has been issued will have all the trappings of a forest governed by clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act. Therefore, in respect of the lands covered by special orders under Section 4 of PLPA, the State Government or authorities of the State can permit diversion to non-forest use only after prior approval of the Central Government is granted in accordance with Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act.

While disposing the appeals and writ petitions, the bench issued the following directions:

  1. All the concerned authorities shall take action to remove the remaining illegal structures standing on land covered by the special orders and used for non-forest activities on the said lands erected after 25th October 1980, without prior approval of the Central Government, and further to restore status quo ante including to undertake reforestation/afforestation programmes in right earnest.
  2. As far as the lands covered by special orders under Section 5 are concerned, we are not making any adjudication. Therefore, the authorities will have to decide the status of the lands covered by the said orders under Section 5 on case to case basis.
  3. To avoid any prejudice to the affected persons, we direct that before the action of removal of the illegal structures and/or action of stopping non-forest activities is taken in respect of the lands covered by the special orders dated 18th August 1992 issued under Section 4 of PLPA, the concerned competent authority shall afford an opportunity of being heard to the affected persons and conclude such proceedings finally not later than three months from today and submit compliance report in that regard within the same time.


Case details

Narinder Singh vs Divesh Bhutani | 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 620 | CA 10294 OF 2013 | 21 July 2022 | Justices AM Khanwilkar, Abhay S. Oka and CT Ravikumar

Headnotes

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2 - The State Government or the competent authority cannot permit use for non-forest activities without obtaining prior approval from the Central Government - The power given to the Central Government under Section 2 must be exercised by adopting scientific and consistent yardsticks for applying the principles of sustainable development. (Para 36-37)

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2 (ii-iv) - The specific land in respect of which a special order under section 4 of PLPA has been issued will have all the trappings of a forest governed by clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act - Whether the special orders under Section 4 continue to be in force or not, the lands covered by the said notifications will continue to fall in the category of forests covered by Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act (Para 47 - 60)

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2 - "Forest" or "any forest land" - (1) Statutorily recognized forests such as reserved or protected forests to which clause (i) of Section 2 is applicable; (2) The forests as understood in accordance with dictionary sense and (3) Any area recorded as a forest in Government records. (Para 38)

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2(ii-iv) - Forest - Dictionary meaning - A large or extensive tract of land having a dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc. A small isolated plot of land will not come within the ambit merely because there are some trees or thickets thereon, as opposed to extensive tract of land covered with dense growth of trees and underbrush or plants resembling a forest in profusion or lushness. (Par 40)

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2(ii-iv) - Government records - A Government record is a record maintained by its various departments - Only the entries made after following due process can be a part of any Government record. Government records will include land or revenue records and the record of the forest department (Para 41)

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ; Section 2(i) - State Government cannot exercise the power under Section 27 of the 1927 Forest Act of declaring that a particular land will cease to be a reserved forest unless there is prior approval from the Central Government. (Para 43)

Indian Forest Act, 1927 - Concept of forest discussed - (Para 26-30)

Interpretation of Statutes - Environment and Forest Laws - The approach of the court in interpreting the laws relating to forests and the environment discussed (Para 25)

Words and Phrases - Dictionary - A dictionary always contains the meaning of the words as they are understood by people for generations. It contains the meaning of a word which is already legitimized. Lexicographers include a word in the dictionary when it is used by many in the same way. (Para 39)

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