Private forests in the state must be identified in a fair, rational manner
THE National Green Tribunal has granted six weeks more to the Goa government for completing the process of identification and demarcation of private forests in the state. Sadly, this extension would be subject to payment of Rs 50 lakh as per the order passed on October 8, 2019, and calculation of the cumulative cost. The NGT has made it clear that Goa would not get any further extension after the extra time of six weeks ends. Despite several extensions granted by the NGT the state has not been able to identify and demarcate private forests. Even after the NGT issued warnings to finish the job and later imposed fines for its failure, the state government has been seeking extensions. After the state failed to submit its report by March 31, 2019, the NGT imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 per day from April 1, 2019 till the report was submitted.
The state has indeed been too slow in identifying and demarcating private forests. It is more than two decades since the Supreme Court ordered identification and demarcation of private forests. Goa is one of the smallest states; it should have been among the first to comply with the apex court order. It is true that following the apex court order in 1996 the state government had set up two expert committees in 1997 and 2000 respectively to identify forests existing on private lands. Though the two committees, one headed by H Y Karapurkar and the other by S M Sawant, presented their reports to the government they were found to be deficient. The main criterion for identifying the private forest was that they should have 75 per cent trees of forestry species. The committees were found to have followed improper methods in identification of private forests. Their findings were based on the guidelines prepared by the state forest department in 1991. Had the government given the two committees appropriate guidelines and had they identified and demarcated private forests accordingly, the state would have completed the process
Though the Sawant and the Karapurkar committees had identified 67 square kilometre as private forests, the review committees constituted for either of the two districts of the state in April 2018 found only 41 square kilometre of area as private forests. Surprisingly, the two committees did not mention the methodology adopted for identifying the private forests. The government received as many as 1,300 objections from the owners of the lands which were sought to be declared as private forests. The main contention of those who objected to their lands being declared as private forests was that they had cashew, mango, jackfruit and other fruit bearing trees which do not fall under the ambit of forestry species. There have been allegations that those in power or having the patronage of politicians managed to remove their land out of the ambit of private forests by managing to get permission to fell hundreds of trees of forest species, while others who did not enjoy political patronage saw their lands being declared as private forest.
It is intriguing to note that the government has been facing the censure of the NGT frequently. Despite warnings and imposition of fines by the NGT for non-compliance of its orders, the state authorities do not appear to be much concerned. However, the directions of the apex bodies cannot be wished away and the government has to make sincere and focused efforts to comply with their directions on the demarcation of private forests. It remains to be seen whether the government would be able to complete the process of identifying and demarcating the private forest within the extended period. Any delay could land the state into deeper trouble with the possibility of stern action by the NGT. The concerned officers of the state government should apply their minds to immediately untangle the tangles that have held back the work of identifying private forests. With land holdings in Goa being small, it remains to be seen how many holdings actually come under the criterion of five hectares for identifying private forests. The concerned officers have to take adequate care that demarcation of private forests is done in a fair and rational manner.