Source: The Indian Express Relevance: GS Paper ll (Polity) & GS III (Environment)

Context: The Supreme Court, in its temporary decision on the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that questions the constitutionality of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act of 2023, has requested that States and Union Territories (UTs) guarantee adherence to the ‘Definition of Forest’ as set out in the TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India(1996)  judgement. 

Key Highlights of Judgement:

Supreme Court's Interpretation of "Forest": 

  • The Supreme Court maintains a "broad and all-encompassing" definition of 'forest' from its 1996 judgment, covering 1.97 lakh square km of undeclared forest lands

  • The definition will continue until a detailed inventory of 'forest' lands, including forest-like areas and community forests, is compiled by States and union territories.

  • State Reporting Requirements: States are required to report by March on forest lands identified in line with the Supreme Court's decision in the T.N. Godavarman case.

  • Regulation on Establishing Zoos or Safaris: The Supreme Court has ruled that the establishment of "zoos or safaris" must not proceed without the Court's final approval.


  • Legal Challenges to Amendments: Supreme Court received petitions contesting the 2023 changes to the 1980 Forest (Conservation) Act.

  • Concerns Over Forest Definition: Petitioners claimed the amendments, especially Section 1A, narrowed the forest definition to only declared forests and lands listed as forests in government records since 1980.

  •  Government's Response: The Centre denied allegations of reduced forest protection, pointing to an amendment in Section 1A that broadens the definition of government records to encompass lands acknowledged as forests by state or union territory authorities, local bodies, councils, or recognized communities.

Definition of Forests in India:

  • No Definitive definition: Currently, there is no universally accepted national definition of forest in India.

  • In September 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) concluded that it is not possible to establish a single set of criteria to define forests that would be applicable to all forest types across all states and union territories.

States’ Authority to Define Forests in India:

  • States have the authority to define forests according to their own criteria.

  •  In November 2019, the Environment Ministry stated that states, with their well-established forest departments, are more capable than the MoEFCC of comprehending their forests and requirements, and should thus establish criteria for their forests.

  • The authority of states to define forests originates from a 1996 Supreme Court ruling known as the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs the Union of India.

Godavarman Thirumulpad Case:

  • In 1995, T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad petitioned the Supreme Court to protect Nilgiris forest land from illegal timber activities.

  • One key aspect of the ruling pertains to the definition of forest.

  • The Supreme Court ruled that the term forest should be interpreted according to its dictionary definition.

  • This definition encompasses all legally recognized forest areas, whether classified as reserved, protected, or otherwise.

  • The judgement directed state governments to establish a panel of experts to identify, designate, and demarcate areas as forests.

  • It also provided guidance on the management of forest areas, including the transfer of forest land for non-forest purposes, in accordance with the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

Forest Conservation Act:

  • The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was established to safeguard India’s forests.

  • It grants the Central government authority to oversee the extraction of forest resources, from timber and bamboo to coal and minerals, by both industries and forest-dwelling communities.

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act of 2023:

  • Introduced a Preamble that highlights India’s commitment to preserving forests, their biodiversity, and addressing climate change challenges.

  • Renamed the Act as the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam (translated as Forest Conservation and Augmentation) from the previous Forest (Conservation) Act.

Scope of Application:

  • The Act applies solely to lands designated as forest in any government record after 1980.

  • Exemptions: If legally diverted for non-forest use between 1980 and 1996.

  •  To forest land located 100 km from international borders intended for strategic projects of national importance.

  • To land between 5-10 hectares for security and defence projects.

  •  The Act outlines certain activities permissible in forests, including the construction of check posts, fencing, and bridges.

  • Additionally, the Bill permits the operation of zoos, safaris, and eco-tourism facilities.

  • Previously, the state government needed the central government’s prior approval to allocate forest land to private entities.

  • The Bill extends this requirement to all entities and allows allocations to be made based on terms and conditions set by the central government.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s temporary order directing States and Union Territories to adhere to the 1996 definition of forest from the T.N. The Godavarman Thirumalpad case underscores the importance of preserving India’s natural resources. This ruling emphasises the need for comprehensive records and a broad, all-encompassing definition of forestto ensure the sustainable management of forest lands.

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