Shrinking Private Forests

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There is something fishy in delay in demarcating private forests

THE state government’s failure to demarcate private forests despite several extensions given to it by the National Green Tribunal is beginning to take the form of a mystery. There is merit in the criticism that something is fishy, as seven committees were formed for a clear demarcation of private forests and yet the task remained incomplete. The category of ‘private forest’ is a bugbear to many Goans who have large clumps of trees and shrubs. They are obviously making efforts to get their lands under threat of such categorization out of the demarcation. The allegation that with every committee set up by the state government, the area under private forests has shrunk has to be investigated in all fairness. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has promised that his government would hold an inquiry into the issue before finally demarcating private forests. However, Sawant did not agree with the opposition to set up a House Committee to probe frequent changes in data pertaining to private forest land.

The first committee to earmark private forest was formed in the year 1997, and though 23 years have elapsed since then the task still remains incomplete. The first committee in its report stated that private forests extended over an area of 67 square kilometres. Subsequent committees brought down the area to 41 sq km  which was further reduced by every committee that was formed to complete the task. The last committee formed for the purpose reduced the area to 25.92 sq km. A review committee set up by the government brought down the area under private forests to a mere 4.91 sq km. However, the reasons for leaving out the major parts of areas listed as private forests areas were not disclosed. With doubts raised over the authenticity of the reports, it is necessary that the entire exercise is done afresh by experts in the field before the state government submits its report to the NGT for its approval.

It is interesting to note that the government has admitted that none of the committees formed to earmark private forests or the review committees issued any letter to any individual or company or any other entity seeking their views on demarcation of private forest. Owing to the faulty process followed the government was bound to receive complaints about the process adopted in identifying private forests being arbitrary and haphazard. It is difficult to believe that the identification of private forests could not be done in the state though the criteria for the process have already been laid for the country as a whole. All that had to be done was to apply the criteria taking the specific situations into account. It cannot be the state government’s case and there is no one competent enough to do the job. What is holding up the demarcation of private forests then? It is a fact that the land holdings in Goa are small. Not many holdings are there with five hectares and 75 per cent forest species as required by the criteria.

The six weeks deadline given by the NGT to the state government to complete the task of demarcating private forests might not last very long. The NGT imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 per day from April 1, 2019 till the report was submitted, threatening the state government that if it failed to complete the process in six weeks it would get extension on payment of a fine of Rs 50 lakh. Goa has already incurred a fine of over Rs 20 lakh and now runs the risk of paying an additional amount of Rs 50 lakh as fine. The NGT had directed the state to adopt a scientific exercise for identifying private forest lands in Goa. The additional secretary (revenue) Anthony D’Souza, who has been directed to identify private forests, has sought physical verification of the areas following claims and counter-claims over the issue. D’Souza has a great responsibility to fulfill. And the various sections of Goan society look up to him to do the job without any prejudice, fear or favour. It has to be noted that the identification of private forests cannot continue to hang fire indefinitely as that data is necessary to ecological conservation plans.