Use dictionary meaning of ‘forest’, Supreme Court tells Central govt.

Why in news?

The Supreme Court upheld the broad definition of ‘forest’ to include 1.97 lakh square km of undeclared forest lands.


GS-02 GS-03 (Conservation, Development, Forest Resources)

Key Highlights

  • Broad Definition of ‘Forest’ Upheld: The Supreme Court’s recent order maintains the expansive interpretation of the term ‘forest,’ encompassing approximately 1.97 lakh square km of undeclared forest lands.
  • This decision comes in response to petitions challenging amendments made to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, in 2023.
  • The amendments, particularly Section 1A, were perceived to restrict the definition of forest to only two categories: declared forests and lands recorded as forests in government records after 1980.
  • The court directed the government to adhere to the dictionary meaning of ‘forest’ as per a 1996 decision until a consolidated record of forest lands is prepared by the States and Union Territories.
  • It ordered the Union government to collect comprehensive records of forest lands identified by expert committees and publish them on the Environment Ministry’s website.
  • The court also mandated that the establishment of zoos or safaris requires final approval from the Supreme Court.


  • Post Independence, extensive stretches of forested land were designated as reserved and protected forests.
  • Nonetheless, numerous forested regions were overlooked, while areas devoid of standing forests were classified as ‘forest’ lands.
  • The landmark Godavarman case of 1996 saw the Supreme Court halt tree felling nationwide and decree that the Forest Conservation Act (FC Act) would encompass all land parcels either officially labeled as ‘forest’ or bearing resemblance to the dictionary definition of forest.
  • In June 2022, the government introduced amendments to the Forest Conservation Rules, proposing a mechanism to permit developers to establish plantations “over land on which the (FC) Act is not applicable” and to exchange such plots for future compensatory afforestation requirements.

Key Amendments of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023:

  • Introduction of Preamble: The Amendment Act enriches the Forest (Conservation) Act by introducing a Preamble. This preamble formalizes India’s dedication to achieving Net Zero Emission by 2070, fulfilling the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets by 2030, and expanding India’s forest and tree cover to one-third of its land area.
  • Applicability: As per the amendment, the forest law will now exclusively apply to areas categorized under the Forest Act, 1927, and those designated as such on or after October 25, 1980. Notably, the Act will not be applicable to forests converted for non-forest use on or after December 12, 1996.
  • Exemptions: The Amendment Bill introduces exemptions to incentivize afforestation and plantation outside forests. These exemptions encompass various scenarios such as utilizing 0.10 ha of forest land for connectivity purposes along roads and railways, allocating up to 10 ha for security-related infrastructure, and up to 5 ha in Left Wing Extremism Affected Districts for public utility projects. Strategic projects related to national security within 100 km of International Borders, Line of Actual Control (LAC), Line of Control (LoC), etc., also fall under these exemptions.
  • Leasing Regulations: Previously, the state government required central government approval to assign forest land to entities not owned or controlled by the government. The amendment extends this condition to all entities, including those owned and controlled by the government. Moreover, prior approval is now subject to terms and conditions prescribed by the central government.
  • Permitted Activities within Forest Land: The Act imposes restrictions on de-reservation of forests or the use of forest land for non-forest purposes. However, certain activities related to forest and wildlife conservation, management, and development are excluded from these restrictions. Such activities include establishing check posts, fire lines, fencing, and wireless communication.
  • Expansion of Central Government’s Legislative Powers: Previously limited to making rules, the central government’s power of delegated legislation now extends to issuing “directions” to any central government authority, State Governments, Union territories, or recognized organizations, entities, or bodies. This expansion aims to ensure effective implementation of the Act’s provisions.

Way Forward:

  • The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the inclusive definition of ‘forest’ signifies a significant victory for environmental conservation. By reverting to the dictionary meaning and mandating the compilation of comprehensive forest records, the Court emphasizes the importance of preserving India’s rich biodiversity and natural resources.
  • The directive regarding the establishment of zoos underscores the need for stringent regulatory mechanisms to mitigate environmental degradation.
  • As the legal landscape evolves, continued judicial vigilance and collaboration between stakeholders will be crucial in ensuring effective implementation of environmental laws and policies.
  • The forthcoming publication of comprehensive forest records will provide valuable insights for policymakers and conservationists, guiding future efforts to safeguard India’s forests.
  • The Supreme Court’s decision reaffirms its commitment to environmental justice and sets a precedent for proactive conservation measures.