Forests are an invaluable natural resource. They provide us raw materials such as wood, timber, minerals, fodder, fuel, etc. They prevent soil erosion, provide shelter to tribal people, maintain the balance of the ecosystem and function as the guardians of the diverse wildlife that our country houses. Apart from this, many forests in India are well known tourist attractions and thus, bring revenue to the nation. The vegetation cover in India is far less than the accepted ideal of 33% of the total land area. India was once a land densely covered with forests. But over the course of time due to the increasing population, urbanization and dependence on natural resources, the forests were subjected to exploitation and thus started depleting.
Under the British regime, forests were used only for revenue extraction. Hence, many forests in India were destroyed. Further, during the World War I, timber was being transported in large numbers to England for building ships. In the year 1865, Forest department was established and the first Forest Act was introduced. However, the main objective of this act was to assert claim on the forest land for further timber supply. In 1878, another act was passed by the British which gave them the absolute power over the control of forest lands. This Act recognized the rights of the tribal people residing in the forests and also categorized the forests further. Making the Forest Act of 1878 comprehensive and more effective, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was passed. This Act repealed all the previous legislations. It consists of 13 chapters and 86 sections. The main objectives of the Act are to consolidate the laws relating to forests and regulation and transit of Forest produce. To fulfil the Constitutional obligation under Article 48-A as well as in response to the speedy decline and depletion of forest covers in India, the Parliament, in 1980, enacted a new legislation which is the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This Act regulates the diversion of forest land in India.
Meaning and Definition of Forest Land
In layman terms, ‘forest’ is a large area of land that is covered with trees and ‘forest land’ is land that is covered by such forests. In India, there no clear and uniformly-accepted definition of these terms. Even the 1927 Forest Act does not define the term ‘forest’. While defining the term, the Allahabad High Court has adopted the definition given by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which defines forest as “all lands which bear a vegetative association demarcated by trees of any size, whether exploited or not, capable of producing wood or other food products”. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in its meeting in September 2019, pondered on the definition of a forest. It was observed that there cannot be any uniform criteria to define a forest which can be applicable to all forest types as there are a wide variety of Forests all over India.
In the year 1995, T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India for the protection of Nilgiri Forests from deforestation because of illegal timber operations. In this case, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court interpreted the meaning of the term “forest land” in view of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
The Court recorded the meaning of “forests” under Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to include the following three categories:
- statutorily recognised forests including the reserved or protected forests which are covered under Section 2(i) of the 1980 Act;
- any “forest” as defined according to the dictionary sense, which is covered under Section 2(ii) to (iv) of the 1980 Act; and
- an area which is classified as a forest in the government records.
The Court said that the 1927 Act was a pre-constitutional legislation and since then there have been a lot of changes and development. The Court observed that intent of the legislature while using the words ‘any forest’ was to bring all the forests under the ambit of the 1980 Act, irrespective of them being covered under the 1927 Act or not.
The dictionary meaning of the term ‘forest land’ was considered by the apex court such that a forest land is ought to comprise of “a large or extensive tract having dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc…. and underbrush or plants resembling a forest in profusion or lushness.” It was also stated that any isolated and small parcel of land with trees or thickets will not be covered under the scope of forest land.
Types of Forest Land
Forests land can be widely categorized into Private and Public forests. Private forests are those which are not occupied by the Government. Under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Central Government has the power to regulate timber cutting and cultivation etc. in such private forest land and also to allow the state governments to seize the forest land only in special circumstances like to preserve public health or for public welfare. Whereas Public forests are of three types namely- Reserved Forests, Village Forests and Protected Forests.
The Indian Forest Act, 1927 deals with the reserved forests in Chapter II ranging from Sections 3 to 27. Any forest land or waste land owned by the government is a reserved forest. In India, approximately 53% of the total forests is are reserved for the purpose of conservation of the forests and wildlife contained in it. Thus, activities like hunting and cutting trees are strictly prohibited in these forest lands. As the Government has proprietary rights over the land, these forests are restricted. Hence, the use of the reserved forests is prohibited to the general public unless they have obtained a permission from the government. Under Section 4 of the Act, when the government issues a notification declaring that such a land is to be constituted as a reserved forest and subsequently, the Forest Settlement Officer settles all the rights either by admitting or rejecting them, then said area of land is declared to be a reserved forest.
Section 26 of the Act deals with the prohibition of various activities in the forest like grazing, tree felling, burning, hunting etc. Further, this section lays down the penalty for violation of the provisions which is imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to Rs. 20,000 but which shall not be less than Rs. 5000.
Some reserved forests in India are the Hanumasagara Forest in Karnataka; Begur forest, Attappadi Forest and Sholayar Forest in Kerala; etc.
Village forests are dealt with in Chapter III of the Act under section 28. According to the Act, when the Government assigns any reserved forest or any other land to a village community or village group for their use of that piece of land, it is categorized as village forest land. Under this Act, the State Government has the power to make rules for regulating the management of these forests. The lands given to village forests are generally constituted into Village Grazing Reserve (VGR). Village Forests and Forest villages are two terms which are different from each other but are mistakenly interchangeably used. While Village Forests is a legal category under the Act Forest Villages is an administrative category.
Baikunthapur Forest in Dooars, West Bengal; Bhavnagar Amreli Forest in Gir National Park, Amreli district, Gujarat; Bhitarkanika Mangroves in Odisha and Dvaita Forest in South of the Kamyaka Forest are some of the village forests in India.
The provisions for protected forests in India are enshrined under Chapter IV under Section 29 of the Act. Under the Act, the State Government is empowered to use any land as protected forest. It is important to note that these forests are not reserved forests under the government. A protected forest can be a reserved forest but not vice versa. In case of these protected forests, the Government has the power to issue rules and restrict uses of the forest. In case of absence of such rules, many practices are allowed. Apart from this, the government also has the power to reserve specific species of trees in these forests. The reasoning behind this is that the said trees have revenue- raising potential and it is necessary to protect them for the benefit of the economy.
Forests are an indispensable part of human life. They are an important source of natural and ecological resources. They house and protect the rich wildlife of our country. Hence, protecting them is a duty of ours. Forest legislation forms a major part of the Environment legislation in India. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 are two of the important forest laws. The Forest Act of 1927 has a vast jurisprudence. It is a comprehensive legislation which encompasses important provisions relating to forest protection and rights and also classifies the forest land into three categories which are Reserved Forests, Village Forests and Protected Forests.
 THE INDIAN FOREST ACT, 1927
 THE FOREST (CONSERVATION) ACT, 1980
 T.N.Godavaraman Thirumulkpad v Union of India, (1997) 2 SCC 267
 Sangeet Kumar Khamari, ‘Laws governing Indian Forests: Amendments to Indian Forest Act, 1927’, Ipeaders Online Blog, 29 February 2020 https://blog.ipleaders.in/indian-forest-act/#Types_of_Forest_Land_under_the_Indian_Forest_Act_1927
 Rajveer Gurdatta, ‘Overview of the Indian Forest Act, 1927’, Ipleaders Online Blog, 29 March 2020 https://blog.ipleaders.in/overview-of-the-indian-forest-act-1927/
 Ashutosh Ranjan Srivastava and Nilakhi Barman, ‘Forest Laws in India – Policy and Assessment’, International Journal of Legal Developments and Allied Issues, The Law Brigade Publishers, 16 March 2019 https://thelawbrigade.com/environmental-law/forest-laws-in-india-policy-and-assessment/#_ftnref7
 Aditi Tandon and S. Gopikrishna Warrier, ‘[Explainer] What is a forest?’ Mongabay India, 27 February 2020 https://india.mongabay.com/2020/02/explainer-what-is-a-forest/
 Rajat Jariwal , Shruti Khanijow , Manasvi Ahuja and Aayushi Khurana, ‘India: Supreme Court Clarifies The Meaning Of “Forests” Under Forest Conservation Act, 1980 : Makes Prior Approval Of The Central Government Mandatory For All Forest Lands’, Mondaq Article, 4 August 2022 https://www.mondaq.com/india/trials-appeals-compensation/1218464/supreme-court-clarifies-the-meaning-of-forests-under-forest-conservation-act-1980-makes-prior-approval-of-the-central-government-mandatory-for-all-forest-lands
 Finallyabhinav, ‘The Indian Forest Act, 1927 – An Overview’, Legal Service India E-Journal https://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-7138-the-indian-forest-act-1927-an-overview.html
 The Hans India, ‘Definition of Forest Land’, 29 October 2016 https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Education-and-Careers/2016-10-29/Definition-of-forest-land/261582
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