NEW DELHI: Most people have read the definition of a “forest” at some point or another, but in India its legal definition is still evolving within the four walls of the environment ministry.
According to the ministry, work is on to come up with an “ecologically sound and socially desirable definition of forests and forestry”.
“We are still working on the definition of forest and will let you know once we finalise it,” Mr Brij Mohan Singh Rathore, joint secretary on the Green India Mission in the environment ministry, told IANS.
Mr Rathore, however, denied commenting on what is delaying the definition.
According to the ministry’s official document, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, does not define the forest, and the legal extent of forests depends upon the process of notifications.
As of now what is followed is based on the Supreme Court order which defines forest as given in the dictionary, say experts.
“The term forest doesn’t have any definition in India. It is defined on the basis of the 1996 Supreme Court order which says anything should be forest if it meets one of the two definitions – either the dictionary definition or land recorded as forest on any government record,” Mr Shankar Gopalakrishnan from the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, an NGO working for forest dwellers, told IANS.
According to Mr Gopalakrishnan, it is a vague definition and provides huge scope for misuse of power by the authorities.
“The interesting part is that it gives space to the government to use draconian powers at its convenience and mark an area as forest or non-forest,” he added.
The ministry’s documents further said recent concerns about climate change also require greater clarity regarding definition of forests for the purpose of understanding opportunities and obligations under the global carbon sequestration regime.
“In this context, the ecologically sound and socially desirable definitions of forests and forestry require to be examined in the Indian context keeping international commitments and different orders of the apex court of the country into consideration,” it added.
The ministry some years ago had asked the NGOs to suggest some definition of forests but has rejected all the suggestions.
“It’s in fact a funny situation and entangled between couple of things. I think it is better to have satellite imagery and fix a bar on the dimension of a forest and then calculate land under forest and non-forest area in the country,” said Mr Yogesh Gokhale, a fellow with the forestry and biodiversity division, the Energy Research Institute (TERI).
Even without a definition, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change in February approved the country’s forestry mission – Green India Mission – to fight climate change.
The mission, one of the eight under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), projects an ambitious target of 10 million hectares of forest cover by 2020 at a cost of Rs 460 billion ($10 billion).
For the first time, this year India is also the global host of United Nations World Environment Day June 5 and the theme is ‘Forests: Nature at Your Service’, which celebrates the multitude of services – providing clean air, housing rich biodiversity, supplying water – performed by the world’s forests.