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Protecting Goa’s Amazing Forest Cover

by the Goa Foundation

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The Foundation is the only group of citizens that has challenged the official data on the extent of natural forests in Goa that is put out by the Forest Department, Government of Goa. It has filed several PIL writ petitions for cancellation of projects approved for areas which have unidentified forests. The most celebrated of these involves the plot purchased by DLF for a luxury housing project at Chicalim.

A SHORT HISTORY OF JUDICIAL INTERVENTION

In 1990, a division bench of the Bombay High Court at Panaji ruled that private forests are also covered by the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Pursuant to that judgement, the forest department of Goa drew up criteria to identify forests in the state of Goa. These criteria were not approved by the state government or by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The latter implements the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The criteria later became a bone of contention between the GF and the authorities.

In 1996, the Supreme Court of India passed an order similar to the 1990 judgement of the Bombay High Court which ensured that forests all over the country, whatever the ownership, would be covered by the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Thus the apex court practically applied the Bombay High Court judgement (from Goa) to the entire country.

The Supreme Court in its 1996 order directed all state governments to set up Expert Committees to identify natural forests (including degraded forest lands) in individual states. The terms of reference given by the Supreme Court order include the following:

  • 1. Identify areas which are “forests”, irrespective of whether they are so notified, recognised or classified under any law, and irrespective of the ownership of the land of such forest

  • 2. Identify areas which were earlier forests but stand degraded, denuded or cleared

  • 3. Identify areas covered by plantation trees belonging to the Government and those belonging to private persons.

 

SAWANT AND KARAPURKAR COMMITTEES

In Goa, the government set up what is known as the Sawant Committee (named after its Chairperson, Mr S M Sawant) to identify private forests in the state. The Sawant Committee identified 40 sq km of private forest. Since its work was not completed before it decided to close shop, the Goa Government appointed a successor committee headed by H.Y. Karapurkar which identified another 27 sq km of private forests. Pursuant to the work of the two committees, a total of 67 sq km of private forests was identified. (Reports of these committees can be downloaded here )

The Goa Foundation moved the High Court to ensure that no land falling in the 67 sq km would be permitted for development or change in land use without prior approval under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Prayer was granted.

The two committees (headed by Sawant/Karapurkar) together did not complete the identification process, which led to some serious forest damage. Since large areas of private forest remained unidentified, town planning authorities continued to grant permissions for development in those areas. The following writ petitions deal with cases where the land was forest, yet development permissions were granted (the most notorious case being the DLF project at Chicalim) :

  • IT Park – Application No.24 (THC)/2013 {NGT at Pune} (Challenge to the proposal to set up an IT park by Infotech at Socorro and Salvador do Mundo villages)

  • Ela – Application No. 25 (THC)/2013 {NGT at Pune} (Challenge to housing in forest area at Ela)

  • Sancoale – Application No. 37 (THC)/2013 {NGT at Pune} (Challenge to housing in forest area of Sancoale)

  • Bethora -Application No.19 (THC)/2013 {NGT at Pune} (Challenge to housing in forest area of Bethora)

  • DLF – Application No.26 (THC)/2013 {NGT at Pune} (Challenge to DLF housing in forest area and on steep slope at Chicalim)

The pressing task now was to get the remaining private forests identified. So the Goa Foundation filed another PIL writ petition asking for setting up of fresh committees to complete the directions given in the Supreme Court’s order of 12.12.1996. Due to the petition, two committees were set up (one for north and another for south Goa). Both committees did hardly any work because of non-cooperation from the Goa Land Survey department.

After a period of two years, the Foundation got fresh committees appointed and these have commenced their work quite seriously and made considerable progress. Their reports are posted here. The work is now complete.

How much of private natural forests remain to be identified?

The state government itself had estimated that some 200 sq km of private forests existed in the state of Goa. However, according to the Forest Survey of India, total forest in the state of Goa covers 58% of the land area. This practically means approximately another 1,000 sq.km. of forest remained unidentified. The discrepancy is due to the different criteria adopted by the Forest Department of Goa and the FSI.

The Goa forest department, following its criteria, has systematically excluded lands with canopy density of less than 40% and areas less than 5 hectare from the definition of forest.

The Forest Survey of India, on the other hand, in its definition of forests includes a category called “open forest” which includes forests with canopy density of 10% and above. This definition has become the basis for the Supreme Court order dated 30.3.2008 which sets out NPV values for lands allowed for diversion.

The Forest Survey of India has also defined a forest in terms of one hectare and above, and not 5 hectare and above, as decided by the Goa Government.

Thus the Goa Foundation had to move the High Court again and again to restrain projects in areas where the density was above 10% and in excess of one hectare. Ad-interim relief was granted, restraining the Collector from granting any conversion sanad where the plot is above 1 hectare and having 10% density and above.

The Goa Foundation also moved the High Court with a PIL writ petition for demarcation of the 67 sq km of private forests on the ground. The government came back with a ground verification report stating that there were many errors in the Sawant and Karapurkar committee reports and as a result of ground truthing, the extent of forest (according to their demarcation on the ground) was only 3000 hectares (30 sq km)!

This work/report was challenged by the Goa Foundation in a fresh writ petition on the grounds that the forest department had not been asked to verify whether there was a forest on a particular survey number or not, but to only survey those lands which the two earlier committees had declared were having “part” forests and then to have these demarcated on the ground. At the time of identification of these private forests from 1997 to 2000, the two committees had found forests on them. Hence those areas would remain forest lands even if the forest had been illegally removed in the meantime by the land owners in question.

The High Court petition challenging the report of the Forest Department relating to the reports of the Sawant and Karapurkar committees was transferred to the National Green Tribunal in 2013. In 2016, the NGT directed the Goa government to appoint another committee to examine the controversial forest areas. 

Government of Goa eventually appointed Ms Deepshikha Sharma, an IFS officer with the Forest Department in its Working Plan division, to review the work of the Sawant and Karapurkar committees. The Sharma committee would also examine the work of the Forest Department, then file a report. This the Sharma Committee completed and submitted to the Goa government on 21.6.2019. Shortly thereafter, the Forest Minister rejected the Sharma report. Goa government promises a new review committee. It soon set up one, under the chairpersonship of Shri Anthony D’Souza, a Joint Secretary in the Revenue Department. When the D’Souza committee was set up, it thought it had to review all the survey numbers identified as part of forest by the Sawant and Karapurkar committees. However, he was soon corrected about this cope of his committee by the Forest Department. They said he should only look at the 4.91 sq km identified additionally as forest by the Sharma committee.

Eventually, the D’Souza committee completed its task of examining 4.91 sq km of identified forest. It confirmed Sharma’s findings, but insisted on excluding 1.04 sq km from the purpose of the definition of forest.

This action of the D’Souza committee was challenged by the Goa Foundation before the NGT in 2020. As a result, the final report of private forests in Goa was kept at 46.11 sq km, and the Anthony D’Souza Committee report was rejected.

  1. Report of Review Committee on Review of Private Forest Areas identified by Sawant and Karapurkar Committees (Sharma Committee) 21.6.2019

  2. Status Report of the Goa govt in terms of NGT order dated 4.3.2020

  3. Affidavit of the Goa Foundation dated 8.8.2020

  4. Additional Affidavit of the Goa Foundation dated 10.8.2020

  5. Goa Foundation Written Submissions

  6. Judgement of the NGT dated 18.8.2020

 

THOMAS AND ARAUJO COMMITTEES

In 2006, the Goa Foundation filed W.P. No. 334/2006 in the Bombay High Court at Goa seeking completion of the identification of private forests in the state. This was pursuant to the disbanding of the Sawant and Karapurkar committees.

Pursuant to the PIL, the state government set up two committees – whose work is not known as no reports were filed by them.

Thereafter, the State government once again constituted two new committees to identify the balance of private forest lands vide Notification No. 7-1-2009/FOR/396 dated 27-11-2012:

  1. The North Goa Forest Division Committee (headed by V.T. Thomas)
  2. The South Goa Forest Division Committee (headed by Francisco Araujo).

The Gazette notification dated 6.12.2012 which carries the order setting up the 2 committees.

The 2 committees (Thomas and Araujo) worked for several years. In the year 2013, the Hon’ble High Court by its order dated 17.10.2013 transferred W.P. No. 334/2006  along with two other Goa Foundation writ petitions (on the subject of forests) which it had earlier clubbed together for final disposal, to the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal, WZ at Pune.  WP No. 334/2006 was renumbered as Appl No.16/2013 (THC)(WZ).

On 27.10.2014, the Conservator of Forests informed the NGT that a meeting of the Expert Committee members, the forest department officials and the Directorate of Settlement and Land Records was called on 15.9.2014. A time limit of 2 ½ years was fixed for completing the entire exercise of identification of the remaining private forest areas in the state. The NGT directed that periodic reports be submitted every six months by the forest department showing the progress made by the two Committees. 

Thus it came to pass that five reports were filed during the years 2015 – 2017 as follows:

First report:        June 2015

Second report:   December 2015

Third report:      June 2016

Fourth report:     January 2017

Fifth report:        August 2017

Combined pdf of these 5 affidavits/reports

On 18.8.2017, the Government of Goa informed the Tribunal that the demarcation of private forest land would be completed by March 2018.  As per the last (fifth) report submitted by the state of Goa, the North Goa Thomas Committee had provisionally identified 1662 ha., while it had surveyed and demarcated 294.3 ha as private forest. The South Goa Araujo Committee had identified 1976 ha., of which 226.8 ha was surveyed and demarcated as private forest. The two Committees had thus provisionally identified an additional area of 3638 ha. of private forest.

Report of the Thomas Committee

Report of the Araujo Committee

Some time in 2018, the matter was taken up by the Principal NGT bench at Delhi (where it was renumbered as OA No.478/2018).  On 12.10.2018, Goa government submitted that the work would be completed by March 2019. The Tribunal disposed of the matter and directed the Goa Government to file the report on completion of the work — with copy to the Goa Foundation.  Till date (5.10.2020), no report has been received by the applicant nor has the matter been listed on the board of the Hon’ble Tribunal after March 2019.  So the Goa Foundation has now been forced to file an “Execution Application”.

It appears that the exercise of survey and demarcation of balance private forests has also been completed by the two committees as they have disbanded.

Thereafter, by a notification dated 21.1.2020, the Government of Goa has constituted a Committee to review the private forest areas provisionally identified by the Thomas and Araujo Committees. The review committee is headed by the Conservator of Forest (Conservation). The notification states that the Committee would submit its report by 10.3.2020.

Copy of the notification setting up the review committee dated 21.1.2020.

In February, 2020, the Review Committee caused advertisements to be placed in the local newspapers inviting objections to declaration of plots identified as forest in the Thomas and Araujo committee reports.

The time frame for filing of objections has been extended upto 31.8.2020 due to the Covid19 pandemic.

Shortly after the Execution Application was filed by the Goa Foundation,  the Forest Department on 18.9.2020 announced the setting up of 14 teams to work under the review committee and do site inspections besides listening to landowners.

 

FOREST CRITERIA LITIGATION

Subsequently, the separate writ petition on forest criteria filed by the Goa Foundation was transferred by the Bombay High Court to the National Green Tribunal, Pune. The NGT passed judgement recommending the GF move the Supreme Court. An appeal was filed before the Supreme Court and on 4.2.2015, the Hon’ble Court was pleased to pass an ad-interim order staying any conversion of land to non-forestry status, if it had natural vegetation in excess of 10% and the vegetation was on any land in excess of one hectare.

The Court also directed the appeal be converted into an IA in the pending Godavarman matter.

The Forest Department has filed an application to vacate the stay. The GF has filed a detailed response which is worth reading.

Interim order of Supreme Court dated 4.2.2015

 

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