Forest or not: Centre vs Chhattisgarh on transfer of 300 sq km for industry

IN MARCH, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced in his Budget speech that the state government has transferred over 300 sq km — an area larger than Raipur — in the Bastar region from the Forest department to the Revenue department to ensure easy availability of land for setting up industries and building infrastructure.

The move has now run into a hurdle — even as paperwork is underway for transferring more land in other parts of the state.

Chhattisgarh did not seek forest clearance for transferring the land, which the state claims is non-forest land handed over earlier “by mistake” to its Forest department. Now, the Union Environment Ministry has pointed out that the land in question is “undemarcated protected forests”, which cannot be given away without forest clearance.

On August 15, in two letters to the Chhattisgarh Chief Secretary and head of the state’s Forest department, the Union Environment Ministry’s Integrated Regional Office (Raipur) asked the state to stop the transfer of land, saying it was in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and multiple Supreme Court orders, and return the land already transferred.

But Chhattisgarh has stuck to its position. “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 force, Chhattisgarh, told The Indian Express.

When contacted, C P Goyal, Director General (Forests) under the Environment Ministry, declined comment. A senior official said “the matter is being looked into closely” in 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 said.

Records reviewed by The Indian Express show that at a review meeting of “the CM’s important scheme” held on February 11, Chhattisgarh Forest officials advised their counterparts in the Revenue department to not use the term “denotification” in official communication regarding the transfer of those patches of “Orange areas”, which were either not notified as forest or are smaller than 10 hectares with less than 200 trees per hectare.

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

In the mid-1950s, ex-zamindari forests with the Revenue department of undivided Madhya Pradesh were notified en masse as protected forests under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The areas were subsequently surveyed and either declared reserve forests after settlement of rights, or denotified and returned to the Revenue department. The areas left out of the survey were marked in orange on the map.

As reports 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 government’s powers to denotify forest land on its own. 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,” said Sunil Mishra, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (land management), Chhattisgarh.

In May 2021, records show, the Chhattisgarh Revenue department sought a joint field survey with the Forest department to identify 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,” said a senior Revenue official.

Not many are convinced. “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,” said a Forest officer based in Raipur.

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