The Union Environment Ministry is likely to challenge a recent notification by the Uttarakhand Forest Department on its definition of a deemed forest. Deemed forests, which comprise about 1% of Indias forest land, are a controversial subject as they refer to land tracts that appear to be a forest, but have not been notified so by the government or in historical records.
In a notification on November 21, the Uttarakhand government said that in areas recorded as deemed forest only tracts 10 hectares and above and having a canopy density of greater than 60%, would be considered forest. The freedom to define which tracts of forest qualify as forest has been the prerogative of States since 1996. However, this only applies to forest land that has not already been historically classified as forest in revenue records, or categorised so by the government as protected or reserve forest.
The notification appears to extend this definition even to tracts already recorded as forest in revenue records. We will be writing to the State. There is a hearing in the Supreme Court on this, Siddhanta Das, Director General (Forest) said.
Environmentalists say that Uttarakhands criteria paves the way for large parts of forestland to be captured by builders and industrialists. This is a destructive order and would hurt landscapes, said Peter Smetacek, founder, Butterfly Research Centre, Bhimtal.
Jai Raj, Uttarakhands Principal Chief Conservator-Forests, said that the hue and cry was needless. The new definition did not touch areas already recorded as forest and this constituted 70% of Uttarakhands geographic area. The new definition refers to revenue land that is outside this forest. We will only be adding extra forest over and above what exists, he told The Hindu in a conversation.
The notification also goes on to say that in areas not recorded as forest in Uttarakhand, only 10-hectare woods with 75% native species and a canopy density greater than 60% would count as forest.
The Forest Advisory Committee, the apex body of the Centre that deliberates on granting permission to industry to fell forests, at a meeting on September 26, said ... States, having well-established Forest Departments, are in a better position, rather than the [Union Environment Ministry], to understand their own forests and needs, and should frame criteria for their forests... criteria so finalised by a State need not be subject to approval by the Ministry.
The subject came up for discussion at the meeting because the Uttarakhand government had put forth a set of criteria defining forest land and asked the Ministry for its opinion, the minutes of the meeting had noted.