Uttarakhand Modifies Rules for Forest Tag, Backlash Says Move Is Pro-Builder

The Uttarakhand government has notified that "deemed forests" will have to meet minimum criteria of "land patch of 10 hectare or above with 60% canopy density and 75% native plant species".

New Delhi: The Government of Uttarakhand has tightened the definition of ‘forest’, prompting expressions of concern from environmentalists that the new terms make it easier for builders and developers to ramp up construction in the ecologically sensitive hill state.

Uttarakhand’s decision is derived from a 1996 Supreme Court order that directed states to form expert committees to define ‘forest’. Consequently, the Union environment ministry’s forest advisory committee clarified in October this year that states don’t need the Centre’s permission to evolve definition of unclassified land as forest.

The Times of India reported that the Uttarakhand government notified on November 23 that “deemed forests” will have to meet a minimum criteria of “land patch of 10 hectare or above with 60 percent canopy density and 75 percent native plant species”.

Concern about the applicability of these standards are rising against the backdrop of agitation in Mumbai, for example, where the government cut trees in Aarey colony to erect a shed for the metro rail project. The colony hasn’t been classified as a forest.

Peter Smetacek, a conservationist based in Nainital, told Times of India that builders don’t need clearance from the forest department for construction activity in areas not defined as ‘forest’.

With the new definition, he stated that “many areas that are actually forests will not be officially recognised as one”. He added, “The state government wants to make Uttarakhand, which has around 70% forest cover, a builders’ paradise at the cost of its green cover.”

He also called the notification a “clear-cut suppression of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980” and that he and his peers would “challenge it in the Supreme Court”.

The report, which quoted various sources, said that the new definition would also allow hotel construction to begin around Corbett Tiger reserve, expedite all-weather road construction work and ease the eviction of van gujjar from some areas.

Reenu Paul, an activist and lawyer, noted that the Forest Survey of India has defined ‘forest’ as one hectare or more of land with 10% canopy cover, submitted in India’s second biennial update report in December 2018. However, a technical body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organises annual climate conferences like the one where the Paris Agreement was forged, questioned it.

“Going by that example, how does the Uttarakhand government justify the 10-hectare explanation? The definition is totally arbitrary and they have tried to change the dictionary meaning of the word forest – any large area with trees and undergrowth – to make profits,” Smetacek continued. “Unabated construction works will now start in the hills and forests will get lost.”

In October, when the state cabinet cleared the new rules, Vimal Bhai, a member of Matu Jan Sangathan, told Indian Express that the parameter “will be used for industrialist and political beneficiaries”.

However, the state government has defended the definition; Uttarakhand forest minister Harak Singh Rawat has asserted that the criteria were drawn up in consultation with experts. “We have also taken all points under consideration and the new meaning is the need of the hour,” he said in a statement.

The Times of India report also quoted an anonymous senior scientist of the Wildlife Institution of India saying the new definition will lead to loss of animal corridors. However, the head of Uttarakhand forest force claimed in response that wildlife corridors won’t be hampered as much as further protected.

“Earlier, the term ‘deemed forest’ was not categorically defined and now with the new clear-cut definition, no one will be able to exploit the over 71% forest cover of our state,” he told the newspaper.