The Supreme Court’s (SC) move to limit states’ ability to change land use for forests or deemed forests comes as a timely booster for conservation. Last week, after hearing a matter concerning the degradation of the Aravalis in Haryana, an SC bench ruled that the land protected by the special orders issued under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) 1900 “have all the trappings of forests land” as covered by Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, or FCA. So, even though owners of private land classified as forests under various legally-accepted definition of forests could approach the state government for approval for non-forest use, the state government can’t, by itself, give such approval and must seek clearance from the Centre. The apex court thus directed the concerned authorities in Haryana to not only demolish illegal structures on the land under PLPA special orders, but also restore status quo ante through reforestation programmes. The present matter has its origins in property owners in the Aravali forests challenging an order of the National Green Tribunal prohibiting non-forest activities in the lands covered under the PLPA special orders, saying that such construction and other activities were in violation of the FCA. The apex court has sought to protect the fragile Aravali ecosystem by saying that while a land-owner should not be divested of her rights to use the land for non-forest activities, “there is an embargo” on any such use. The court ruled that whatever developmental work is undertaken must only be “to the extent it can be sustained while alleviating environmental concerns.”
This should serve as a timely reminder to the government, both states and the Centre, on balancing the protection of the country’s forest wealth and development imperatives, especially as population pressures on resources is now projected to grow earlier than expected. The Haryana government needs to study the ruling carefully. Prioritising reckless urbanisation and development over environmental good, it had amended the PLPA in 2019 to allow construction on thousands of acres in ecologically-sensitive regions of the state. The SC came down hard on the state government just a day after the amendment, terming it ‘wilful adventurism’ and an “obnoxious and contemptuous” action. Had the Haryana amendment not been stayed by the apex court, it would have freed 80,000 acres or 50% of the Aravalis for construction. The Aravalis are critical for the national capital region in terms of sustainability, not just as a haven for biodiversity, but also groundwater recharge. The SC ruling should give the National Capital Region Planning Board (under the Union housing and urban affairs ministry) a reason to review its draft Regional Plan 2041 that erases key protection for the Aravalis, other forests in the NCR and ecologically-important water-systems, including limits on the area that can bear construction in the conservation zones.
India, as the recent Forest Survey data show, has been able to grow its area under forests, but the quality of the forests—in terms of diversity and density—leaves a lot to be desired, with imperfect inclusions such as monoculture plantations. Worse still, whatever loss has been recorded is in some of the most vulnerable regions. Against such a backdrop, the government needs to balance development compulsions with the indispensable needs of conservation. Rights of owners of private forest lands must not suffer, but neither should India’s long-term environmental obligations.