Why it is important to ‘Re-define’ Forests in India

‘Forests’ in India remain defined by their dictionary meaning as guided by the Supreme Court in Godavarman case in 1996. Oxford dictionary defines forest as ‘a large area covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth’. There are many other similar articulations which do not consider legal or ownership status making it applicable to all types of land with vegetation. Its Implications are far reaching as this brings all such lands under the purview of Indian Forest Act of1927, which regulates the use and harvest of trees. It has discouraged farmers and other stakeholders to plant trees on their private and community lands.

Government of India constituted Subramanian committee in 2014 to review six important Acts related to air, water, forests, wildlife and environment of the country. This committee came up with several suggestions to streamline the implementation process and make these Acts effective. One of the most debated recommendations pertained to the redefinition of forests in the country. This committee suggested excluding plantations on private lands from the definition of forests and recommended denotifying plantation areas on public lands such as road side, canal side etc. for developmental activities. A section of the civil society has criticized the report on account of its non participatory approach and its recommendations. These stakeholders argue that re-defining forests will lead to an adverse impact on forest and tree cover in the country. We however feel that the though there is scope for making the process more participatory, however, there is an urgent need for a redefinition of forests for ecological security and sustainable management of forests in the country. Let us explain reasons for this assertion.

A comprehensive statutory definition based on the social, developmental and ecological objectives enunciated in the forest policy and progressive legislations of the country will clear the confusion about ‘what constitutes forest?’ (Hence, what does not) and will help in strengthening the forest management in the country. It can be a single definition with several sub heads covering different aspects with their explanations. It will provide much needed clarity and reduce conflicts among stakeholders during implementation of important policy decisions and legislations such as Forest Conservation Act, Biodiversity Act, and Forest Rights Act etc. Supreme Court had requested the states to define forest in 1996 for this purpose, but only a few states have responded thus far.

Indiscriminate inclusion of all private plantations in ‘forest’ category have impeded growth of farm forestry and private plantations in the country as land holders are subjected to various state rules for harvest and transport of the timber and other forest produce. The suggestion of Subramanian committee to exclude private plantations from the definition of forest is a welcome move. It should allay the concerns of farmers and landholders and encourage them to undertake plantations, which in turn will reduce pressure on natural forests.

Current definition includes various categories of community and government lands under forests without recognizing the rights of local communities. Many such lands were traditionally used as pastures and for shifting cultivation and other purposes. Orange areas in Madhya Pradesh, which are marked for distribution to marginal people, present one such case. Some of the rights are now being recognized under Forest Rights Act, but a new definition with a scope for recognition of local peoples’ rights can address these issues in a comprehensive manner.

India is party to several international conventions like UNFCCC, CBD, UNCCD, and UNFF. It will serve country well in putting its stand more clearly and firmly if it has a well designed definition. Some of the agreements such as CDM under Kyoto protocol require a country specific definition of forests. India defines forest as a land with minimum of 0.05 ha area with at least 15% of the crown cover of 2 m high trees under CDM. Whereas, Forest survey of India has defined a minimum of 10% crown density to be included in forest cover. Due to increasing role of forests in climate change, India will be required to define terms like forests, deforestation and degradation. Many countries across the world such as USA, Canada, Brazil and China have drafted definitions as per their social and ecological conditions. Hence, it’ll be useful for India to have a suitable definition as well.

Forests in India are a source of livelihood for local people and provide ecosystem services to national as well as global community, hence there are myriad stakes. The new definition should be flexible enough to accommodate huge social, legal and ecological diversity across the country and should be sensitive to the rights of local people. Therefore, an extensive, democratic and participatory process including all the stakeholders should be undertaken to redefine forests. It is bound to be a highly complex and contested process but definitely worth pursuing in a large democracy like India.

Profile photo of Dr. Ashish Aggarwal and Dr. J.V Sharma
The writers work with The Energy Resource Institute (TERI), New Delhi.