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Explained: What are deemed forests, and why Karnataka wants to declassify some

19th November, 2020 Environment

Context: The issue of deemed forests is a contentious one in Karnataka, with legislators across party lines often alleging that large amounts of agriculture and non-forest land are “unscientifically” classified as such.

What are deemed forests?

  • Concept of deemed forests has not been clearly defined in any law including the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Supreme Court in the case of T N Godavarman Thirumalpad (1996) accepted a wide definition of forests under the Act.
  • This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2 (1) of the Forest Conservation Act,”
  • Supreme Court said in its December 12, 1996 order. “The term ‘forest land’ occurring in Section 2 will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any areas recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership.
  • An expert committee constituted by the Karnataka government after the Supreme Court order identified ‘deemed forests’ as “land having the characteristic of forests irrespective of the ownership’.
  • Thickly wooded areas of the Revenue Department not handed over to the Forest Department; thickly wooded areas recommended to be handed over to the Forest Department; thickly wooded land distributed to grantees but not cultivated; and thickly wooded plantations of the Forest Department could all be ‘deemed forests’, the committee said in a report in 2002.

Demands to reclassify

  • A deemed forest fits “dictionary meaning” of a forest, “irrespective of ownership''.
  • Amidst claims that the move hit farmers, as well as barred large tracts from mining, the state has been arguing that the classification was done without taking into account needs of people.

How much land in Karnataka is protected under the Forest Act?

  • Reports by expert committees in 1997 and 2002 identified 43.18 lakh hectares of forest land for conservation in Karnataka, which included 33.23 lakh hectares notified forest area as per forest records and 9.94 lakh hectares ‘deemed forests’.

After the Forest Minister’s announcement, what now?

  • Preservation of forest areas in India under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 has been continuously monitored by the Supreme Court since the Godavarman case judgment in 1996.
  • The state government must obtain clearances from the Supreme Court for affecting changes to land classified as deemed forests since the verdict, said officials of the Forest, Ecology and Environment department in Karnataka.
  • In 2019, the state had filed an interim application in the Supreme Court for exclusion of 5.18 lakh hectares from the deemed forest category.
  • The SC has not passed an order on the application. A fresh application showing the extent of land to be released from the deemed forest category as 6.64 lakh hectares must be filed,