Use Of Forest Land For Non-Forest Purposes Cannot Be Permitted Without Prior Approval From Central Government – SC
The Supreme Court has held that the use of forest land for non-forest purposes cannot be permitted without the prior approval of the Central Government.
A three-judge Bench of Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice Abhay S. Oka, and Justice C.T. Ravikumar in this context observed –
…we hold that the lands covered by the special orders issued under Section 4 of PLPA have all the trappings of forest lands within the meaning of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act and, therefore, the State Government or competent authority cannot permit its use for non-forest activities without the prior approval of the Central Government with effect from 25th October 1980."
The Court also held that prior permission of the Central Government is the quintessence to allow any change of user of forest or so to say deemed forest land.
The Court thus directed all the concerned authorities to remove the illegal structures standing on the land covered by the special orders and used for non-forest use on the lands erected after 25th October 1980, without the approval of the Central Government and further to restore the status quo ante including to undertake reforestation/afforestation programmes in right earnest.
Senior Counsel Vikas Singh appeared for the Petitioners/Appellants while the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta appeared for the State Government before the Apex Court.
In this case, the Writ Petitioners were the owners of marriage halls and restaurants and holders of the land covered under the special orders issued under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA). The appeals were filed before the Apex Court challenging the orders of the NGT that has restrained the Appellants from carrying out any non-forest activity on the lands in Haryana. The lands were covered under the order dated 18th August 1992 issued under PLPA. The Tribunal had held that those lands were forest land within the meaning of the Forest (Conservation) Act. Some of the Petitioners who claimed to have lands in the Haryana had also challenged the notices issued by the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad to remove the illegally constructed farm houses, banquets etc.
Therefore, the common issue raised in all these Petitions was –
- Whether a land covered under a special order issued by the Government of Haryana under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 is a 'forest land' within the meaning of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
The Bench referred to the definition of 'Forests' under the 1927 Forest Act and 1980 Forest Act.
The Court noted that under 1927 Act, it does not define the term 'forest', 'reserved forest' and 'protected forest and held that a forest land does not become a reserved forest unless a notification is issued under Section 20 of the 1927 Forest Act. Similarly, a forest can be declared as a protected forest only by publishing a notification under Section 29 of the 1927 Forest Act.
In relation to the 1980 Act, the Court observed –
"The State Government or any other authority can always permit the use of any forest land or any portion thereof for non-forest purposes only with the prior approval of the Central Government. In a sense, this enactment provides for permissive use of forest land for non-forest activities with the prior approval of the Central Government. Therefore, the owner of a private land which is a forest within the meaning of Section 2 can convert its use for non-forest purposes only after obtaining requisite permission of the State Government or concerned competent authority. However, the State Government or the competent authority, as the case may be, cannot permit such use for non-forest activities without obtaining prior approval from the Central Government This provision has been made to check further depletion of already depleted green cover and to ensure that only such nonforest activities are permitted by the Central Government which will not cause ecological imbalance leading to environmental degradation. Considering the scheme of the 1980 Forest Act, the title holder of a private land which is a forest within the meaning of Section 2 is not divested of his right, title or interest in the land. But there is an embargo on using his forest land for any non-forest activity."
The Court further observed that the object of embargo on permitting non-forest use of the forest land without the permission of the Central Government is not to completely prevent the conduct of non-forest activities.
In this context, the Bench further opined –
"This provision enables the Central Government to regulate nonforest use of forest lands. While exercising the power to approve non-forest use, the Central Government is under a mandate to keep in mind the principles of sustainable development as evolved by this Court including in its decision in the case of Rajeev Suri. The embargo imposed by Section 2 ensures that the development and use of a forest land for non-forest use is governed by the principle of sustainable development."
For understanding the meaning of 'forest' or 'reserved forest', the Court placed reliance on 1997 Godavaraman's case, and opined that Section 2 applies to three categories of forests –
Statutorily recognized forests such as reserved or protected forests to which clause (i) of Section 2 is applicable; ii) The forests as understood in accordance with dictionary sense and iii) Any area recorded as a forest in Government records.
"If a land is shown as a forest in Government records, it will be governed by Section 2. A Government record is a record maintained by its various departments. A Government record is always made after following a certain process. Only the entries made after following due process can be a part of any Government record. Government records will include land or revenue records, being statutory documents. For the same reason, it will also include the record of the forest department. After all, the forest department is the custodian of forests. It is this department of the State which is under an obligation to protect the forests for upholding the constitutional mandate. Further, it is this department which identifies the forest lands and maintains a record. Therefore, the record maintained by the Forest Department of forest lands after duly identifying the forest lands will necessarily be a Government record," the Court held.
Thus, the Court observed –
"Whether a particular land is a 'forest land' within the meaning of Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act, is a question which is required to be decided in the facts of each case in the light of the aforesaid parameters."
"Thus, it appears to us that various restrictions, regulations and prohibitions in different clauses in Section 4 of PLPA can be invoked necessarily in respect of forest lands. Whereas, Section 3 of PLPA contemplates the issuance of a general notification in respect of any area subject to erosion or likely to become liable to erosion when it appears to the State Government that it is desirable to provide for the conservation of sub-soil water or the prevention of erosion," the Bench held.