MoEF draft on forests likely to exclude many Aravali tracts

by chitrkunwar

News by: Jayashree Nandi & Bagish Jha
Jun 22 2016 : The Times of India (Delhi)

A draft notification on definition of forests prepared by the environment ministry may finally resolve ambiguity over whether large tracts of the Aravalis are “forests“. However, if approved, the notification may exclude scrub forests in the ecologically fragile hills that have less than 10% crown cover.
Large Aravali stretches are not dense forests and have been recorded as `gair mumkin pahar’, `gair mumkin rada’ and `rundh’. The draft does recognise these areas but says only parts of it with over 10% crown cover adjoining a recorded forest will be recognised as “forest“.

Around 11,500 hectares of forests in Haryana’s NCR, much of it in the Aravalis, could fail to get protection if the draft is notified. Sources said that environment minister Prakash Javadekar had not yet approved the draft.

Though officials have agreed on it “in principle“, it would take couple of more meetings to fine-tune. “It is still a work-in-progress,“ said an official. All isolated patches of sparse scrub vegetation will have to be of mini mum five hectare area and more than 10% crown cover to be considered “forests“ as per the new definition.This applies to states with forest cover of less than one-third of the total area according to the draft. Haryana falls under this category .

This is a departure from the ministry’s 2014 draft which also recognised “scrub forests“. Scrub forests have 0% to 10% crown cover as per the Forest Survey of India but the current draft has no mention of scrub forests.

Experts who have looked at the draft said the extended meaning of forest as in the Samatha case judgment of SC has been ignored. The Samatha judgment had noted that “`forest’ bears extended meaning of a tract of land covered with trees, shrubs, vegetation and undergrowth intermingled with trees with pastures, be it of natural growth or manmade forestation“. The current draft doesn’t consider plantations as forests.

In the previous drafts, for recorded forest areas, the eligible records were all government records but the new draft considers only “Record of Rights“ or land records.

Experts said areas that will be affected by the new definition of forest include areas which are not protected under section 4 & 5 Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) like areas of Mangar out of PLPA, Mohabatabad, Roj Ka Gujjar, Kot and most of the areas which are under `yet to be decided NCZ’ category .

The new draft will affect the ongoing demarcation of Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ), especially the areas which has been put under `yet to be decided NCZ’ category , they said.

Haryana government has prepared a draft of NCZ in which around 55,000 hectares of land in five districts -Gurgaon, Faridabad, Rewari, Palwal and Mewat has been put in confirmed NCZ, while around 11,500 hectares areas have been kept in the `yet to be decided NCZ’ category .

Environmentalist Col S S Oberoi said the SC had ruled in the Godavarman judgment in December 1996 that in addition to notified forests, areas recorded as forests in government records will be treated as forests for the purpose of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA).

In addition, it had held that areas which meet the criteria of dictionary meaning of forests will also be treated as forest.

“These were to be applicable irrespective of ownership of the land, and to ar eas that were earlier forest, but now degraded, denuded or cleared. This lead to the famous `deemed forest’ terminology ,“ he said.

Environmental analyst Chetan Agarwal said Haryana’s situation is peculiar as unlike many other states, it has very low forest cover at 3.6%.

“In south Haryana districts, this cover is largely restricted to the Aravali hills and foothills (bhood areas). Most of the Aravali hills are not notified as reserved or protected forests. Rather, they are with the panchayat, or urban bodies, or have been privatised,“ said Agrawal, adding some of these areas are notified under the Punjab Land Preservation Act 1900, or planted under the Aravali project and are treated as forest by virtue of SC orders.

“However large areas of the Aravalis were not notified under the PLPA Act, or treated in the Aravali Project. For these areas, the dictionary meaning of forests should be applicable,“ he pointed.

“Now with the increase in crown density criteria, as is under consideration, large parts of Aravali will be excluded from being declared as forest,“ said Vivek Kamboj of Haryali NGO. He feared that any such provision may come as a body blow to the Aravalis in Haryana since every inch of this eco-fragile zone has been privatised in recent decades.

Added Jitendra Bhadana of Save Aravali, “If we lose vast portions of Aravalis and allow this to be used for real estate and commercial activities, we will be hardly left with any land to develop as forest.“

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