States can't permit non-forest activities without Centre's nod on land declared as forest: SC

Supreme Court of India | Photo: Mathrubhumi

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday held that a state government or a competent authority cannot permit "non-forest activities" without prior approval of the Centre on plots that have been declared forest land under the 1980 Forest Act.

The top court said while interpreting laws on the forest, courts are guided by various constitutional schemes such as Article 21 of the Constitution which confers a fundamental right on the individuals "to live in a pollution-free environment".

"Forests are, in a sense, lungs which generate oxygen for the survival of human beings. The forests play a very important role in our ecosystem to prevent pollution. The presence of forests is necessary for enabling the citizens to enjoy their right to live in a pollution-free environment," a bench comprising justices A M Khanwilkar, A S Oka, and C T Ravikumar said.

The bench also held that the land in villages Anangpur, Ankhir, and Mewla Maharajpur of Ballabhgarh in Faridabad District, which were covered under a special order of the Haryana government under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 was the "forest land".

Justice Oka, writing an 82-page judgement for the bench, said, "Thus, we hold that the lands covered by the special orders issued under Section 4 of PLPA have all the trappings of forest lands within the meaning of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act and, therefore, the State Government or competent authority cannot permit its use for non-forest activities without the prior approval of the Central Government with effect from 25th October 1980."

It held prior permission from the Central Government is the "quintessence to allow any change of user of forest or so to say deemed forest land."

Even during the subsistence of the special orders, states can permit non-forest use of the land if the Central Government approves it.

The verdict ordered the state authorities to "take action to remove the remaining illegal structures standing on land covered by the special orders and used for non-forest activities... after 25th October 1980, without prior approval of the Central Government."

"To avoid any prejudice to the affected persons, we direct that before the action of removal of the illegal structures and/or action of stopping non-forest activities is taken in respect of the lands covered by the special orders dated 18th August 1992 issued under Section 4 of PLPA, the concerned competent authority shall afford an opportunity of being heard to the affected persons and conclude such proceedings finally not later than three months from today and submit a compliance report in that regard within the same time," it said.

Referring to guiding constitutional principles, the verdict said it is the obligation of the state to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests.

"Under clause (g) of Article 51A of the Constitution, it is a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect and preserve the natural environment, including forests, rivers, lakes, and wildlife, etc," it said.

It is well settled that the Public Trust Doctrine is a part of our jurisprudence and under the said doctrine, the state is a trustee of natural resources, such as sea shores, running waters, and forests, it said.

"The public at large is the beneficiary of these natural resources. The State being a trustee of natural resources is under a legal duty to protect the natural resources. The public trust doctrine is a tool for exerting long-established public rights over short-term public rights and private gains," it said.

The top court was seized of petitions assailing the government order of 1992 declaring land in these villages as forest land, saying "merely because the subject lands are covered by the notifications/orders issued by the State of Haryana ..., the same cannot be ipso facto treated as forest lands within the meaning of the 1980 Forest Act." PTI

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