Odisha Government removes “deemed forest” provision

Concerns arise over the potential ecological impact by the move to remove the deemed forests and worse, its detrimental effect on tribal communities' rights.

The Odisha government has taken the step to abolish the “deemed forest” provision from the newly amended Forest Conservation Act. The decision comes in the wake of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023, passed through both houses of Parliament and receiving Presidential assent on August 4. While the legislation awaits formal notification by the central government, debates surrounding the exclusion of “deemed forests” from the law have gained traction.

According to the Indian Express, the “deemed forest” concept found its roots in a 1996 Supreme Court verdict, TN Godavarman vs Union of India, which substantially broadened the definition of “forests.” The ruling declared that areas recognised as forests in official records, regardless of ownership, would fall under the protective ambit of forest conservation laws. In other words, a land which in all sense appears to be a forest but is not notified as one by the centre or state governments. This interpretation aimed to safeguard ecologically valuable land that wasn’t officially classified as forests.

Thus the Odisha government’s decision to exclude “deemed forests” from the amended act has raised questions and stirred alarms over the move. The move also appears to deviate from the observations of the Joint Committee of Parliament, which evaluated the bill. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), defending the decision, stated that expert committee had already identified and documented these “deemed forests,” ensuring their inclusion under the act’s provisions, according to a report by The Hindu.

However this raises questions about the forest rights of Adivasis and indigenous people as a significant portion of Odisha’s forested regions comprises these “deemed forests,” upon which tribal communities depend heavily. These areas are essential to the social, cultural, and economic fabric of local populations.

Speaking to The Hindu, Tushar Dash, an independent researcher, talks about the potential consequences of this decision, stating, “Removing the ‘deemed forest’ provision could have adverse effects on the rights of these communities, potentially exposing ecologically crucial forest and bio-cultural habitats to exploitation.” Notably, Odisha contains a substantial area, almost 50% of its geography, designated as a fifth schedule area under the Constitution which means that this region comes under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act.

In the wake of these new legislations, concerns over indigenous rights, environmental degradation and industrial consumption continue to rise as forest rights groups repeatedly raise their voices against these proposed changes by the government.



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