The Bombay High Court held that Camptothecin does not fall under the category of forest produce per Section 2(4) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (Forest Act).

The Court allowed a set of Petitions filed by Individuals indicted for the purported theft of Forest Produce.

The Court noted that a product loses its classification as forest produce if it is manufactured through human effort and acknowledged by the business community as something new and distinct.

The Bench comprising Justice A. S. Gadkari and Justice Shyam C. Chandak observed, “Camptothecin is not a forest produce, question of holding otherwise does not arise herein. Hence, we hold that, the subject Camptothecin is not a Forest Produce”.

Advocate Subhash Jha appeared for the Petitioner and Additional Public Prosecutor Mahalakshmi Ganpathy appeared for the State.

Several petitions were filed, relating to the illicit felling of Narkya trees in Chandoli National Park in April 2005. The cases involve 27 offences against 490 offenders. The Accused Individuals, including Jagdish Dhavale and Kasam Chanchal Shaikh, were linked to the entire process from cutting Narkya trees to manufacturing Camptothecin. Companies like Universal Chemical Industries, Hyderabad, Somaiya Farms and Organic Products Pvt. Ltd., Gujarat, and Naturite Agro Products, Hyderabad, were also implicated.

A series of Petitions were filed under Article 226 of the Constitution and Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (CrPC), seeking to quash criminal cases in which the Petitioners were implicated. The Petitioners referred to the Calcutta High Court's order in W.P. No.21014 (W) of 2005 and the Division Bench's decision in FM Appeal No.930 of 2006, which upheld the Single Judge's order.

The Court framed the issue: “Whether the seized Camptothecin is a “Forest Produce” or not?

The Court observed that as per Section 2, sub-Section (4) of the Forest Act, the term Forest-produce encompasses items obtained from or brought from a forest, including various materials like timber, charcoal, caoutchouc, catechu, wood-oil, resin, natural varnish, bark, lac, mahua flowers, mahua seeds, kuth, myrabolams, as well as different parts of trees, plants (excluding trees), and wild animals. It also includes peat, surface soil, rock, minerals (such as limestone, laterite, mineral oils), and all products derived from mines or quarries.

During the investigation, the Second Respondent (Conservator of Forests) requested the dispatch of 22 Kgs. of Camptothecin, considering it stolen Forest Produce. The First Petitioner clarified that the substance was obtained through a legitimate order and was unrelated to the suppliers' raw material sourcing. Due to the toxicity of Camptothecin, the Conservator of Forests sought permission to retain it in custody after providing samples.

With no timely response, the First Petitioner approached the Calcutta High Court, resulting in a ruling that Camptothecin does not qualify as Forest Produce. The State appealed this decision, but the Division Bench upheld the ruling, stating that Camptothecin, based on a chemical process chart, undergoes a significant transformation from Mapia Foetida, rejecting the argument that it retains the original character of Mapia Foetida.

The Division Bench affirmed that if a commercially distinct product emerges through human labour, it ceases to be classified as forest produce. The Court noted that the Apex Court, upheld this decision, stating that Camptothecin is not a forest produce.

Consequently, the Court deemed the prosecution of the Petitioners in the criminal cases as unwarranted.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the Petition and set aside the impugned cases registered against the Petitioners.

Cause Title: Fresenisu Kabi Oncology Ltd v The State of Maharashtra (2023:BHC-AS:39646)

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