Forest Conservation Efforts – NFP, Western Ghats, etc.

Supreme Court’s Interim Order on Forest Definition


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Godavarman Judgement, Forest Definition

Mains level: Forest land-use management



  • The Supreme Court issued an interim order on February 19, 2024, emphasizing that states and Union territories (UTs) must adhere to the Definition of ‘Forest’ as established in the TN Godavarman Thirumalpad v. Union of India judgement of 1996.
  • This order came during the hearing of a public interest litigation challenging the constitutionality of the Forest (Conservation) Act, which was amended by the Union government in 2023.

Why such move?

  • The petitioners highlighted concerns that the 2023 amendment had narrowed the expansive definition of ‘forest’ provided in the Godavarman judgement.
  • They argue that this move potentially aims at diverting forest lands for non-forest use.

What is Godavarman Judgement?

  • The Godavarman Judgment is a landmark environmental case in India, first heard in the Supreme Court in 1996, commonly referred to as the “Godavarman Case.”
  • Originating as a PIL filed by Mr Godavarman, a retired forest officer, it addressed concerns about forest degradation due to various developmental activities without proper environmental clearances.

Key Legal and Regulatory Framework

  • Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and Rules: The case primarily interprets and implements the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 1981, aiming at forest conservation and wildlife protection.
  • Powers of Central Government: The FCA empowers the central government to declare areas as “reserved forest” or “protected forest,” prohibiting non-forest activities without prior approval. It extends to all forests in India, not just declared reserves.
  • Defining Forest: The order defined as any area recorded as forest in the Government record irrespective of the ownership. This definition is broad and encompasses any area recorded as a forest in government records, regardless of its legal status or ownership.
  • Analysis:
  1. Diversion of Forest Land: The case tackled the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes, emphasizing compliance with the law and due diligence.
  2. Extent of Central Government’s Powers: It clarified that the central government’s authority under the FCA extends to all forests, irrespective of ownership, emphasizing stringent regulation.
  3. Emphasis on Sustainable Development: The court stressed the importance of sustainable development in forest conservation and protecting the rights of forest dwellers and tribal communities.

Impact of the Judgement

  • Strengthening Forest Conservation Laws: The case led to stricter interpretation and implementation of forest laws, focusing on conservation and protection.
  • Increased Judicial Role in Environmental Governance: It established the judiciary as a watchdog in environmental governance, promoting public scrutiny of environmental decisions.
  • Protection of Forest Lands: Resulted in the cancellation of projects diverting forest land, contributing to biodiversity conservation.
  • Recognition of Rights: Emphasized the recognition and protection of rights of forest dwellers and tribal communities.
  • Promotion of Sustainable Development: Highlighted the importance of balancing economic development with environmental protection.

Criticism of the Judgement

  • Hindrance to Economic Development: Criticized for hindering economic development and displacing communities.
  • Role of Judiciary: Criticized for causing delays in decision-making and project implementation.

Key Points of the Recent Order

  • Adherence to 1996 Order: The bench, led by CJI emphasized that states and Union territories (UTs) must adhere to the definition of ‘forest’ as per the Godavarman judgement until the completion of the process of land recorded as ‘forests’ in government records.
  • Recording Forest Land: State and UT administrations are directed to prepare records on forest land within a year from the notification of the 2023 amendment as per Rule 16 of the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Rules, 2023.
  • Expert Committees: The Union government is instructed to provide a comprehensive record of land registered as ‘forest’ by expert committees constituted by states and UTs within two weeks.
  • Compliance Deadline: All states and UTs must comply with the directions by forwarding the reports of the expert committees by March 31, 2024.

Additional Directions

  • Zoo and Safari Establishment: Any proposal for the establishment of zoos and safaris in forest areas other than protected areas shall not be finally approved without prior permission from the Supreme Court.
  • Exemption Clause: Section 5 of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, exempts zoos and safaris from the definition of ‘forests’ within forest areas, excluding protected areas.
  • Government Undertaking: The Union government submitted an undertaking that no precipitative steps would be taken concerning forest areas as per the dictionary sense, in line with the Godavarman judgement.


  • The Supreme Court’s interim order underscores the importance of preserving forest lands as per the Godavarman judgement and ensuring compliance with environmental protection measures.
  • It aims to safeguard the ecological balance and prevent misuse of forest resources for non-forest purposes.

Back2Basics: Universal Definition of Forest

  • As per the Conference of Parties (CoP) 9-Kyoto Protocol, the forest can be defined by any country depending upon the capacities and capabilities of the country.
  • Forest- Forest is defined structurally on the basis of
  1. Crown cover percentage: Tree crown cover- 10 to 30% (India 10%)
  2. Minimum area of stand: area between 0.05 and 1 hectare (India 1.0 hectare) and
  3. Minimum height of trees: Potential to reach a minimum height at maturity in situ of 2 to 5 m (India 2m)

India’s definition of Forests

The definition of forest cover has clearly been defined in all the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) and in all the International communications of India.

  • The forest cover is defined as ‘all land, more than one hectare in area, with a tree canopy density of more than 10 percent irrespective of ownership and legal status.
  • Such land may not necessarily be a recorded forest area. It also includes orchards, bamboo and palm’.

Classification of forest cover

In ISFR 2021 recently published has divided the forest cover as:

  1. Inside Recorded Forest Area: These are basically natural forests and plantations of Forest Department.
  2. Outside Recorded Forest Area: These cover mango orchards, coconut plantations, block plantations of agroforestry.

Forest Survey of India (FSI) Classification

  • FSI classifies forest cover in 4 classes.
  1. Very Dense forest: All lands with tree cover (including mangrove cover) of canopy density of 70% and above.
  2. Moderately dense forest: All lands with tree cover (including mangrove cover) of canopy density between 40% and 70%.
  3. Open forests: All lands with tree cover (including mangrove cover) of canopy density between 10% and 40%.
  4. Scrubs: All forest lands with poor tree growth mainly of small or stunted trees having canopy density less than 10%.

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