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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.

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.

Subsequently, the writ petition on forest criteria 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.

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