Forest or not: Centre vs Chhattisgarh on switch of 300 sq km for trade

IN MARCH, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel introduced in his Budget speech that the state authorities has transferred over 300 sq km — an space bigger than Raipur — within the Bastar area from the Forest division to the Revenue division to make sure simple availability of land for establishing industries and constructing infrastructure.

The transfer has now run right into a hurdle — whilst paperwork is underway for transferring extra land in different components of the state.

Chhattisgarh didn’t search forest clearance for transferring the land, which the state claims is non-forest land handed over earlier “by mistake” to its Forest division. Now, the Union Environment Ministry has identified that the land in query is “undemarcated protected forests”, which can’t be given away with out forest clearance.

On August 15, in two letters to the Chhattisgarh Chief Secretary and head of the state’s Forest division, the Union Environment Ministry’s Integrated Regional Office (Raipur) requested the state to cease the switch of land, saying it was in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and a number of Supreme Court orders, and return the land already transferred.

But Chhattisgarh has caught to its place. “A reply has been sent to the letter of the Government of India. No transfer of protected forest land has been done. Transfer of areas recorded as non-forest land, such as ghas bhumi (grassland), on revenue records is under process,” Rakesh Chaturvedi, head of the forest pressure, Chhattisgarh, instructed The Indian Express.

When contacted, C P Goyal, Director General (Forests) underneath the Environment Ministry, declined remark. A senior official mentioned “the matter is being looked into closely” within the Ministry. “As per the Supreme Court’s definition, any land that is part of the (forest) working plan or under the control of the Forest department is forest land. Irrespective of tree cover, grasslands or rocky surfaces are also forest land,” the official mentioned.

Records reviewed by The Indian Express present that at a assessment assembly of “the CM’s important scheme” held on February 11, Chhattisgarh Forest officers suggested their counterparts within the Revenue division to not use the time period “denotification” in official communication concerning the switch of these patches of “Orange areas”, which have been both not notified as forest or are smaller than 10 hectares with lower than 200 timber per hectare.

Legally categorised as “undemarcated protected forests”, the so-called Orange areas are the results of an administrative logjam that remained a bone of rivalry between the Revenue and the Forest departments because the abolition of the zamindari system in 1951.

In the mid-Nineteen Fifties, ex-zamindari forests with the Revenue division of undivided Madhya Pradesh have been notified en masse as protected forests underneath the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The areas have been subsequently surveyed and both declared reserve forests after settlement of rights, or denotified and returned to the Revenue division. The areas unnoticed of the survey have been marked in orange on the map.

As experiences of rampant illicit felling and encroachment delayed the completion of the survey, the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 took away the state authorities’s powers to denotify forest land by itself. Carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, Chhattisgarh inherited its share of Orange areas.

“After the Supreme Court gave a broad definition of forests in 1996, Madhya Pradesh handed over Revenue forests to the Forest department. That is how 2,328 sq km was added to the original Orange areas of 9,954 sq km during 1997-2007. In that process, some non-forest areas also came under the Forest department, which are now being returned to the Revenue department,” mentioned Sunil Mishra, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (land administration), Chhattisgarh.

In May 2021, information present, the Chhattisgarh Revenue division sought a joint subject survey with the Forest division to determine non-forest land “that had been included by mistake” in Orange areas. “We barely have any land available for development, particularly in the tribal areas. So this is a pragmatic policy to free non-forest land from the Forest department,” mentioned a senior Revenue official.

Not many are satisfied. “Any legal transfer of forest land requires giving back twice the area from Revenue to Forest. Since that defeats the purpose, we are turning forests into non-forest areas using the 10-hectare-200-tree formula which was created through an executive order and has no legal standing,” mentioned a Forest officer primarily based in Raipur.

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