The National Green Tribunal (NGT) at Western Zonal Bench, Pune, passed an order on 18th August 2020, after decades-long struggle refusing to accept the D’Souza Committee report and accepting Goa Foundation’s plea to approve the area of 46.11 sq. km as the final area of private forest as per the reports of Sawant and Karapurkar Committees.
The matter dates back to Jan 1997 when the Goa Govt set up the Sawant Committee, pursuant to the directions of the Apex Court which had directed that private lands that met the criteria of forests be declared as such & be protected. The Supreme Court directed each State Govt constitute an expert committee to Identify areas which are “forests”, identify areas covered by plantation trees belonging to the Government & those belonging to private persons.” Goa’s Sawant committee submitted its report in 1999. Next year, the State Govt, allegedly under pressure from “vested interests”, set up the Karapurkar committee, a decision which was challenged in the Apex Court.
The Supreme Court restrained the Karapurkar Committee from interfering with the Sawant Committee’s report. A total of 67 sq. km was identified by both these committees. However it was carried out without “actual ground verification to determine the extent of private forests”, the Goa bench of Bombay High Court directed the state government to demarcate the non-forest areas from forest areas on the basis of Sawant & Karapurkar Committee reports. The Goa Forest Department then carried out the exercise of demarcation after ground verification & after five years, the final report of demarcation was submitted to the High Court in 2008.
As per this demarcation report, the actual surveyed & demarcated private forest area came out to be 41.20 sq. km. This report, too, was challenged by the Sharma committee found that an additional area of 4.91 sq. km has been found to be qualifying all 3 private forest criteria. Out of total 67.12 sq. km referred area by Sawant & Karapurkar Committee, the Review Committee has identified an area of 46.11 sq. km as a private forest of Goa, the report stated.
Arguments before the Court
The Petitioners stated that there is a reduction in the private forest area from the area identified and demarcated by both Sawant Committee and Karapurkar Committee.
The Respondents claimed that considering the principles of natural justices, the State of Goa constituted another Committee under the Chairmanship of Joint Secretary, (Revenue) to finalize a report on private forest after considering the objections of affected parties whose land were identified as private forest.
This was done to provide an opportunity to the affected persons whose rights over their land were encumbered in view of bringing these under private forests. According to Sawant & Karapurkar Committee reports, the demarcated private forest area came out to be 41.20 sq. km. This report, too, was challenged by the Sharma committee found that an additional area of 4.91 sq. km has been found to be qualifying all 3 private forest criteria. It has been stated in the D’Souza Committee report that no objections were received for an area of 2.90 sq. km out of 4.91 sq. km identified by the Private Forest Review Committee (Sharma Committee).
The case has dealt with the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The Court interpreted the reports given by Committees by stating:
“Salmond in his jurisprudence states that the laws come to the assistance of the vigilant and not of the person who is delaying the proceedings… Public interest is an undoubtedly is a paramount consideration in exercising the course discretion wherever conferred upon it by the relevant statutes. Public interest demands that the state or the persons involved in it as the case may be should not be allowed to indulged in any act to unsettle the settled legal rights accrued in law by resorting to avoidable litigation unless the claimants are guilty of deriving benefit to rich they are otherwise not entitled, in any fraudulent manner or pending the litigation for time immemorial.”
The Court observed that the first exercise of demarcation of forest or non-forest portion as per Sawant and Karapurkar Committee report was carried out by the Forest Department itself which took more than two years from 2005 to 2008 to complete the task. The Court accepted the report submitted by the Sharma Committee. However, the Court rejected the reports submitted by the D’Souza Committee.
The NGT confirmed and accepted 41.20 sq. km area demarcated by the Forest Department and 4.91 sq. km identified by the Sharma Committee totaling 46.11 sq. km. The Court directed the State of Goa to give the reasonable compensation of amount of fees paid while filing this application and also the cost of litigation to the Goa Foundation.
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