Forest (Conservation) Act 1980

Act 69 of 1980

Thepfulhouvi solo IFS (68) Retd

I came to hear about TN Sheshan only when he worked as the ELECTION COMMISSION CHAIRMAN and taught some effervescent Chief Ministers of certain States how to concisely sit quietly in their power Chair during State elections. I appreciated the rare boldness of the Officer, his honesty and sincerity; his was one of the finest bureaucrats of India.   

He was the Secretary Forest when the subject of Conservancy became an important thinking in the country. I did not know earlier the signature in his letter to the State requesting Nagaland to accept the new spectacularly short Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 with only 2 main clauses the Union Government prepared for all the States of India. Even unlamented, the Act now going to be replaced was at worst a useful one.

The Commissioner Secretary Forest, Nagaland then was SB Chetri IAS (NCS) happened to be an Officer born and brought up from Chanmari, AG Colony Kohima, known to me personally and got posted Secretary Commissioner Department of Forest Nagaland. When TN. Sheshan’s letter asking for acceptance of the Conservation Act came to Nagaland, the Secretary was not very clear about it and wanted to hear my views; I got into IFS Nagaland Cadre in the first batch of the Service in Independent India and got up to Above Selection Grade then.

The Jhumland jungles in Nagaland are all owned by the Villages; the  Government owned Reserved Forests was hardly 2% of the State and to put all the vast agricultural villager’s private land, -not yet constituted into ‘FORESTS’ under the Government Forest Act-, hence Non-Forest, was not a very comfortable idea for Nagaland. I therefore stated my personal view that the Act may not be suitable for Nagaland.

I believed the Secretary must have replied the Centre in the vein I discussed with him.

Not long after, Nagaland received another communication from Secretary Sheshan again, stating that the proposed Forest (Conservation) Act is purely ‘for the preservation of the unique forests and animals, and would not interfere with the villager’s ownerships of the jungles. The Officer Babus in the ministry do not understand the jungle situation in Nagaland and think like the Dictionary taking all the tree overgrown Jhumlands as Forests in legal parlance.  

I sensed the Forest Secretary Nagaland appeared a little hesitant to give a negative reply this time to the Union Ministry’s requests, and therefore I said enigmatically; “let us give them an apparently acceptable reply with a rider at the back suited to Nagaland”. And on his consent I scribbled a short draft communication to the Centre’s Secretary, saying: “Nagaland will apply the Conservation Act in all its Reserved Forests and also on the Government Purchased lands for Forests in the State” or something like that. Long ago, Nagaland had converted its Reserved Forests at Rangapahar, Singphan in Mon area and Intangki into Wildlife Sanctuaries and stopped all Revenue collection activities from them.

The FOREST (CONSERVATION) ACT 1980, ACT 69 OF 1980 is a very exacting Act and came into effect from 25 Oct. 1980. It gives so much indirect Power to the Forest Department which derails, delays development Projects of all other development Departments by considering all overgrown jungles wherever they may be as ‘FORESTS’ requiring Recommendation or Permission from the Centre by the Act.

In Mizoram for example, all the land belongs to the Government and hence all the jungles there are taken as ‘FORESTS’ under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department and all of the development departments consider the Forest Department as their modern enemy!

The Forest Ministry in the Centre brings out Yearly the Total Area under Forest Cover in the Country and considers all agricultural Jhum Cultivation in the Northeast as serious yearly loss of ‘Forest Cover’ in the Country.

India’s initial Carbon Control promises in the G-7 to G-20 Meetings had been deferred and consider Forest Conservation Act an important hope. Once the Forest Survey of India showed Nagaland’s lone Intangki National Park as ‘Jhumland’ and prompted this Writer to send a laboriously constructed ‘Thank You’ letter for showing our Intangki National Park as JHUMLAND! The Forest Conservation Act acts like a naughty boy sometimes.        

It runs like this:
1.    Short title, extent and commencement:
i.    This act may be called the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
ii.    It extends to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmere.*
iii.    It shall be deemed to have come into force on 25th day of October 1980.

2.    Restoration on the de-reservation forest or use of forest land for non-forest purpose.

Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force in a State, no State Government or other authority shall make, except with the prior approval of the Central Government may order directing:

i.    That any reserved forest (within the meaning of the expression “reserved Forest” in any law for the time being in that State) or any portion thereof, shall cease to be reserved;
ii.    That any forest land or any portion thereof may be used for any non-forest purpose;
iii.    That any forest land or any portion thereof may be assigned by way lease or otherwise to any private persons or to any authority, corporation, agency or any other organization not owned,  managed or controlled by Government;
iv.    That any forest land or any portion thereof may be cleared of trees which have grown naturally in that land, or portion, for the purpose of using it for re-forestation.

The whole meaning of the Act simply is that ‘No Forest land’ can be put to ‘Non-Forest purposes;’ even ‘Re-forestations’ of poor value miscellaneous Forest Compartments with valuable species by the Department is not allowed.

On the strength of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, the Supreme Court on a PL Case: T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad VRS UNION OF INDIA Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995 issued an Injunction banning all felling of Trees in the Ministry’s favourite area of the Northeast in 1995.    

All Northeast States vied with each other to obey the Court’s Order ahead of the others!

Nagaland did not issue Order banning felling of Trees in the State and enquired the minimum Girth size of the Tree banned for felling; the Supreme Court informed that ‘Tree means Tree as it is described in the Dictionary’.

Still Nagaland, to the utter disgust of our Supreme Court Advocate Kailas Vasudev at Delhi, did not give any Order banning felling of Trees. Nagaland stated that the whole population of the State would die of Famine if felling of Tree defined in the Dictionary is banned because Jhum Cultivation cannot be done without felling of the Tree.

The Principle Secretary’s heart-beat fluttered a little at the prospect of spending some possibly unknown time in the Tihar Jail for not issuing ban order of felling of Tree in the State. The Chief Secretary late AM Gokhale fully understood the situation Principal Secretary of Forest was in, and jokingly encouraged him saying: “Angami, let us then together reserve  our seats in the Tihar Jail; we will take Conservation Books there and read  the whole time.”

Within an unexpected time, the Supreme Court said: ‘Tree felling during Jhum Cultivation is a traditional customary practice allowed in the Naga, but Trading Jhum-felled tree is not a customary practice and is not allowed!

Now, nearly half a century after, Thanks to India’s border problems with its neighbours, the Forest (Conservation) Act has become a stumbling blocks to India’s Security Planning’s and hence quite a few Restrictions of the Act of 1980 have to be re-considered for change in the changed situation of India finds today; the Lok Shabha has already passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 on a 15 minutes consideration, and now waiting for Rajay Sabha’s approval.

Principally the amendment 2023 Act removes the stumbling blocks of 1980 Act and provides in principle:
1.    There shall be no restriction in the Act within a Zone of 100km along the International Borders for Security Works.
2.    Roads construction leading to Habitations is allowed.
3.    No Restrictions in Lands converted to Non-Forests before 12 Dec 1996
4.    The bill Allows Zoos.
5.    Safaris.
6.    Eco-Tourism facilities and
7.    Lifting of Some other Restrictions etc.

For Nagaland, the non-Forest area covers almost all the State area by the 100km Zone along the International Border and therefore when the Forest conservation Amendment Act 2023 is passed, it will free Nagaland from the Centre taking the Village and Privately Owned Non-Forest jungles in the Jhumland from present ‘FOREST AREA’ removing the restrictions from Nagaland and other States of India too.

However the new Forest conservation Amendment Act 2023 may contain New Terms and Names in Hindi Script the overwhelming majority of Naga do not understand. Therefore if there appears any new Terms and Names in the amended 2023 Act in Hindi, Nagaland must bring it to the notice of the Ministry now immediately; the Terms in Hindi must have their equivalence in Roman Alphabet for all non-Hindi speaking areas of the Country.

The amended 2023 Act of the Principal Act of 1980 should ease a lot of the difficulties the States felt earlier and therefore Nagaland State may not have any serious objections quite a few others have already raised.

The writer is Former Principle Secretary, Forest, Environment & Wildlife, in the rank of Addl Chief Secretary, Nagaland.