Forests in danger

Amendments to Tamil Nadu’s Forest Act will jeopardise the region’s flora and fauna

A country should have at least one-third of its land area under forest cover to run a sustained economy – but that has been getting difficult with the ever-increasing threats of global warming and Climate Change.

Every state is trying to increase its forest cover by implementing necessary acts and policies. Particularly Tamil Nadu, where the Tamil Nadu Forest Act was enacted in 1882 during British rule. With subsequent introduction of the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests Act (TNPPF Act) –1949, Tamil Nadu Hill Areas (Preservation of Trees) Act – 1955, Wildlife (Protection) Act – 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act – 1980, Tamil Nadu Rosewood Trees (Conservation) Act – 1994, etc., the Tamil Nadu Forest Department is trying very hard to protect its forests.

But often, forest officials encounter several challenges while enforcing the law. Many complaints are filed against forest personnel who evict encroachers or book them for offences under TNPPF Act. Human rights petitions filed against the forest staff demoralise them and contempt petitions prevent them from doing their job. Though these petitions do not, mostly, stand in the court of law, they still end up causing mental agony. Despite this, 20.26 per cent of the state's land is covered with forests. The financial aid provided by Japan to increase tree cover outside the forest has also contributed to the results. But the amendments made in TNPPF Act have diluted its strictness and prevented officials from dealing with offenders effectively.

While assessing forest cover, the forests owned by private individuals are also taken into account. In order to protect such forests spread over a vast expanse, TNPPF Act was enacted in 1949. Out of 32 districts, the Act is in force in around 20. As per Section 3 (1) (a) of the Act, "No owner of any forest shall, without the previous sanction of the (Committee) sell, mortgage, lease or otherwise alienate the whole or any portion of the forest."

There are a lot of private forests situated well within and close to the reserved forests of Kanyakumari district. This district was with the Kerala state when the Act was made and it was later introduced here in 1979. Many private forests here have been notified under the Preservation of Private Forests Act. Whenever the private estate owners indulged in any act likely to denude the forest or diminish its utility as a forest, immediate action was taken to prosecute them. If the owners tried to develop their land to cultivate commercial crops like rubber, cloves, coconut or areca nut by destroying the existing natural and spontaneous growth, they were booked under provisions of TNPPF Act, 1949.

Usually, if a private forest notified under the Act was sold by violating provisions, the matter was reported to the district collector. Then, the sale was declared null and void by the collector. On receipt of the said proceeding, when the aggrieved private estate owner appealed to the state government, it upheld the order passed by the collector. Shocked by the government order, all private estate owners joined together and tried to get the Act scrapped. The representation made by the association was referred to me, as I was serving as the district forest officer in Kanyakumari, for my remarks.

I said if the Act was lifted, it may lead to denudation of the forest cover from the private estates within no time, causing streamlets to dry up – the streams and rivers which originate from the hills and hillocks on which these private forests are located. The district is already facing water scarcity during summer. If any order is passed in favour of the representation, the district may be deprived of not only the water source but also of the valuable biodiversity.

The government did not scrap the Act, but due to repeated pressures and issues raised in the Assembly, the state amended the Act, sanctioning power to the purchaser under section 4-A (1). Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1) of section 3, the purchaser of the whole or any portion of the forest, which has been sold by the owner of such forest without the previous sanction of the committee to retain the whole or any portion of the forest, within such time as may be prescribed, etc., and got the assent of the President in 2015.

Certain genuine hardships that private estate owners faced have been taken into account and a suitable amendment has been issued. But at the same time, unless the provision is used scrupulously, it may allow sale or transfer of ownership of property, deemed illegal, which the original Act did not permit.

When any permission is issued by the committee for sale or transfer of any private forest located inside the forest cover area without proper and thorough field verification and records, it may lead to regularisation of the government forest under encroachment and the illegal structures such as resorts, etc., built destroying the forest.

If the amendment is followed casually, all encroachments and illegal structures that have come up may become legal. Likewise, some villages notified under TNPPF Act that are located within the core area of the protected areas and act as buffer zones along with other villages notified under the Act located in the buffer zone that act as corridors facilitating wildlife, especially the elephants, may turn to be a threat to the denizens of the deep forests.

At this juncture, the historic Supreme Court judgment of August 2018, ordering the closure of the illegal resorts built in the Sigur Plateau, the buffer area lying between the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and the Nilgiris Hills with many villages that act as the prime corridor for migrating wildlife, especially for elephants, must be recalled.

While private forest owners are happy with the amendment, conservationists believe that as many private estate owners have already denuded the forest cover for raising cash crops like rubber, clove, tea, coconut, etc., taking advantage of the Act's loopholes, the relaxation of the provision may lead to further destruction of forest cover.

Now, only if the authorities empowered to implement the Act are more cautious, the remaining forest cover can be well protected for the sustenance of not only the present generation but also of the posterity.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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