The decline of forest cover in India and what laws protect the forests
Written by: P Renuka Sai, Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University.
Forests are the natural resources of immense significance and are often regarded as a beautiful creation. Forests are valuable not only because of their botanical usage but also because of its recreational and glamorous beauty, which gives glory and attractiveness to many places in both North-East India and other countries. In addition to these economic and ecological advantages, forests carry state income, provide the industry with raw material and serve as sources of fuel and fodder. Land conservation is also the subject of contrasting opinions.
Forests have been cleared at unprecedented levels across the world over the past century and are declining rapidly. In India, we have been estimated to have vegetation cover about 19 percent of the overall land area compared to the agreed 33 percent ideal in Asia and over 40 percent globally. Therefore, the vegetation cover is far less than required. The 1927 Indian Forest Act and land-related state laws enforce government regulation over forests by classifying them into reserved, protected, and village forests.
Once India gained independence, forests had been placed on the constitution’s state list. Different state forest agencies tended to control forests in compliance with the 1927 Indian Forest Act, as enacted by state legislation. The Indian Forest Act grants the state authority over woods, both public and private, and allows timber production for benefit.
Recent Forest Cover Report
India State of Forest Report 2019 indicates a rise of 5,188 square kilometers of forest and trees covered throughout the world as opposed to the 2017 ISFR. However, the study highlights that as compared to ISFR 2017 and previous studies, northeast India tends to lose forests.
The forest report also shows that in tribal districts, which are home to around 60 percent of India’s forests, the forest region under the category “registered forest area” is also declining. The study first performed a biodiversity survey for all states and union territories and found that Arunachal Pradesh has the highest abundance of the plants preceded by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in terms of trees, shrubs, and herbs.
Indian Forest Act, 1927
In 1927 a new substantive Forest Act was enacted to render forest legislation more functional and to strengthen the Forest Act, 1875, which repealed all old law. The key objectives of the Act are
- Consolidation of law concerning forests.
- Management and transportation of growing trees.
- Levying duties on wood and other forest products.
In the Act, the phrase “forest” is not defined. While describing the term, the Allahabad High Court followed the interpretation given by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that forest means “all lands with a vegetative association demarcated by trees of any height, cultivated or not, capable of producing wood or other food products.”
Reserved Forests – Reserved forests are protected under Section II of the Act. This is an area or mass of land now notified under section 20 or in compliance with reservation clauses of the Indian Union State Governments’ Forest Acts. The Forest Settlement Officer sets a period of not fewer than three months to consider any arguments and complaints holding or demanding certain ownership to the property that is so advised to be reserved.
Village Forests – Chapter III of the Act deals with Village Forests. It is defined in section 28. The Government can grant the rights over a property to any village group that may be part of a reserved forest area for group usage. Village forests are a legislative form under the Indian Forest Act. Village forests is a pure division of administration. Taxation incentives can not accrue to these villages because they are not legally under the departments of taxation.
Protected Forests – The protected forest is a region or body of land where the government retains ownership rights and is not a reserved forest. The protected forest does not need the lengthy and tedious resolution process, as in the reserved forest. The State may issue notices allowing such trees to be reserved in a protected forest, or revoke private property for a term not exceeding 30 years.
Drawbacks of the Indian Forest Act, 1927
A detailed analysis of the act shows that the act was never meant to shield India’s forest cover but was passed on to:
1)- Control cutting of trees.
2)- make money by cutting the trees and from forest products.
It was intended primarily to provide raw material to forest-based industries. Forest was recognized as a significant element in the maintenance of eco-balances and the climate. It can be remembered here that the revenue-oriented mentality towards the forest persisted even after independence. Therefore, this 1927 act failed miserably to preserve the timber from unscientific and unplanned degradation.
Judiciary and Forest Legislations
At least 30 percent of the land of the country will be protected by sufficient forest cover. Large-scale deforestation happened, and the land cover reduced to less than 18%. The deforestation proceeded even after substantial measures taken by the Governments. In 1996, the Supreme Court gave full instructions to regulate the federal implementation of Forest Laws. Indian courts have played a vital role in protecting the climate and biodiversity.
The Centre for Environmental Law (CEL) vs UOI and Ors This decision relates to the resolution of privileges in national parks and sanctuaries and several other problems under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act. With this single order, the Supreme Court removed all rights of de-reservation / de-notification from the federal government and the state legislature. Such lawsuits have been heard for more than a decade now and are considered “continuing mandamus.” Such directives have a considerable effect on land conservation and governance.
- Without Supreme Court permission, no forest, national park or sanctuary can be de-reserved.
- No non-forestry practices are allowed in any National Park or Sanctuary, even though prior permission was received under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
- An administrative order in 2000 banned the removal from any region of a National Park or Sanctuary of any dead or rotting plants, grasses, driftwood, etc. This was also guided that if any order to the contrary has been issued by any government of the State or by some other body, that order shall stay.
- New councils, commissions, and agencies such as the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and the Management and Planning Agency for Compensatory Forests have been created.
- Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union of India Represents the country’s single most significant judicial interference in forest administration. This case was initially instituted to resolve the felling of timber within Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri region. The Court practically took over the day-to-day management of Indian lands. This has had significant financial, economic, and institutional consequences. The judge reinterpreted the 1980 Forest Conservation Act to extend the scope of the word ‘forest.’ The situation has also contributed to the development of new mechanisms, e.g., the National Forestry Level Committee popularly recognized as the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) established under the Environment Protection Act.
Analysis of the Policies on Forest Laws
The National Forest Policy, 1894
In 1894 the British Colonial Government implemented the first Forest Policies intended for custodial and timber-oriented management. Its principal characteristics were:
- Forest conservation was promoted for the country’s overall wellbeing.
- The need to preserve sufficient forest cover has been acknowledged to protect the county’s climatic and environmental conditions and to meet the essential requirements of the population.
- Prioritization should be granted to permanent agriculture before forestry.
The National Forest Policy, 1952
After Independence, a new Forest Policy was introduced in 1952. It was considered appropriate to address the adjustments that happened during the time after the first forest policy was enunciated in 1894. The 1952 legislation effectively removed the flaws of the earlier system. It has been reported that the foundation of the 1952 National Forest Policy should be India’s overarching national needs such as: 
- The need for adaptation of the compatible and equilibrated land use method.
- Invasions of sea sand in tidal areas and flooding on river banks.
- Denudation of hilly areas and the need to hold a balance
- The requirement for a safe forest supply provides defense, connectivity, and sectors such as timber.
- The requirement for the ongoing recognition of the full individual profit by all the above needs.
The National Forest Policy, 1988
The 1988 National Forest Policy was India’s turning point for forest management, which focuses broadly on environmental stability, restoring ecological balance, and preserving the country’s biological diversity. The main goals guiding the National Forest Policy of 1988 are:
- Maintain environmental integrity by sustaining and restoring the ecological equilibrium adversely disrupted by the country’s extreme loss of forests.
- Increase forest production to satisfy critical national needs.
- Testing surface degradation and denudation in a river, dam, groundwater catchment areas in the fields of land and water quality, reducing flooding and droughts.
- Increase the forest/tree cover in the country significantly through significant afforestation, especially on all depleted and unproductive lands.
- Reach the fuelwood, fodder, small forest produce, and small timber needs of the rural and tribal community.
- Encourage efficient timber resource use and increasing wood substitutes.
The Draft National Policy, 2018
In 2018, the Indian government released the draft National Forest Policy Act. The strategy aims to resolve the emerging problems of climate change, human-animal rivalry, and declining green covers. Critics argue the proposal entails private afforestation issues, which will result in India’s natural resources and private forests being developed. The proposal is now subject to public input and, if it comes to effect, will override the 1988 framework.
Conclusion and Suggestions
Forests and the goods that they produce are inherently crucial for human civilization. We must consider strategies for sustainably maintaining the woods. The first step was taken in the 1927 Indian Forest Act’s context, the primary purpose of which is to inform the forests in the different categories.
Since the enunciation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, a significant change in the land conservation systems since independence occurred. The Act was passed to control the exploitation of forest property. Broad areas of land have tended to be drained for forestry, logging, and construction activities, such as dams and habitat degradation.
To make forest policy more successful, the database on forests should be improved. The forest cover evaluations will include different details on plantations and natural forests to represent real improvements in the country’s forest cover. Specific environmental products and services offered by forests will be fully compensated for to view the real contribution forests bring to the economy.
Existing laws on the climate and forestry should be reshaped, and appropriate changes should be introduced to make it more rigorous in its application. Improved usage of financial tools would make polluters compensate equal to the volume of emissions. The judiciary will follow a liberal attitude to the cases related to forest regulation.
 Mayank Aggarwal, India’s forest cover is rising but northeast and tribal areas lose, Mongabay (January 3, 2020), https://india.mongabay.com/2020/01/indias-forest-cover-is-rising-but-northeast-and-tribals-lose/
 The Centre for Environmental Law (CEL) vs UOI and ors, WP No. 337 of 1995.
 N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union of India, AIR 1997 SC 1228
 A Bhatia, Forests Acts, Policies and Land Settlements, (1999) http://lib.icimod.org/record/23461/files/c_attachment_234_2518.pdf
 Sharad Kulkarni, Forests: Laws versus Policy, Economic and Political Weekly (April 22, 1989), https://www.epw.in/journal/1989/16/roots-specials/forests-law-versus-policy.html
 Anonymous, Perspectives and Policies on Forest Management in India: Special Reference to Orissa, Shodhganga, http:// http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/21724/9/09_chapter%201.pdf
 S. Gopikrishna Warrier, India’s new forest policy draft draws criticism for emphasis on industrial timber, Mongabay (Sept 29, 2018), https://news.mongabay.com/2018/04/indias-new-forest-policy-draft-draws-criticism-for-emphasis-on-industrial-timber/