An overview of Indian Forest Act, 1927
The word forest has been derived from the Latin word ‘Foris’ which means outside. As of 2019, 21.67% of India’s geographical area is covered by forest. The forest has proven to be one of the essential resources available to man because of the large number of products and residues that it produces. However, we still see that our forest cover is reducing at an alarming rate. Global warming, industrialisation, mining and other various reasons have led to its depletion over the years. People have recklessly exploited the resources available through forests without keeping an account of the future. In order to protect the forest and the ecological balance created by it, the Indian government had enacted the Indian Forest Act,1927. The preamble to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 states that the Act seeks to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty levied on timber, and other forest produce. It also defines the procedure for declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest or a Village Forest. It establishes a forest offence, the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on its violation.
The first Imperial Forest Department was established under the Indian Forest Act 1865 to regulate forest activities during colonial times. Subsequently, the Indian Forest Act,1878, was enacted, which classified the forest area into protected, reserve and village forests. It attempted to regulate the collection of forest produce by forest dwellers, and some activities declared as offences. Violation of the rule imposed imprisonment and fines to establish state control over forests. Finally, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was enacted to extend the control of the state over forests. This comprehensive legislation was made to be more effective as compared to the previous laws.
WHAT IS A FOREST?
The meaning of forest is so vast and expansive that it has not been defined under the act. Though the Supreme Court has tried to define its meaning multiple times, it has never succeeded. However, the term forest produce has been given an inexhaustive definition under Section 2(4) of the Act. This section gives a fair idea of what kind of land can be classified as a forest. The Act has also further categorised forest land into three types.
CATEGORIES OF FOREST UNDER INDIAN FOREST ACT,1927
Chapter II of the act deals with reserved forest. This category of forest is highly restricted. The State Government may constitute it on any forest land or wasteland, which is the property of the government or on which the Government has proprietary rights. In reserved forests, most uses by local people are prohibited unless specifically allowed by a Forest Officer during settlement. The locals are not allowed to use this forest unless they have been granted permission to do so. While Section 4 of the Act deals with declaring land to be a reserved forest, Section 26 of the Act clearly states all the prohibited activities in a reserved forest.
The provisions for village forest are dealt with in Chapter III under Section 28 of the Act. Forests that the State Government may assign to any village-community, in other words, the rights of the Government to or over any land which has been constituted a reserved forest, shall be called village-forests. The state government makes rules for regulating the management of such forests.
The provisions for protected forest are dealt with in Chapter IV of the Act. A protected forest is any forest that is not a reserved forest but on which the government has proprietary rights. The government has the right to issue rules regarding the use of such a forest. Additionally, the government can reserve specific tree species in such a forest because these trees have revenue-raising potential for the state. This power has been used to establish State control over trees, whose timber, fruit or other non-wood products have revenue-raising potential.
PROCEDURE FOR SETTLEMENT OF RIGHTS UNDER INDIAN FOREST ACT,1927
The following is the standard procedure for settlement of rights when a reserve forest is intended to be constituted:
- The state issues a notification under Section 4 declaring its intention to reserve or protect a certain piece of land and assigns a Forest Settlement Officer (FSO) to inquire into the claims made by the locals.
- The FSO considers the claims of locals for the usage of certain rights, but at the same time leaves flexibility to decide whether to revise, relocate or discontinue certain practices.
- The inquiry by the FSO should not be confined to merely recording evidence produced by the claimants or ascertainable from the records of the Government.
- The FSO can then call any person for cross-examination who he thinks is aware of the facts and evidence.
- No new rights in the notified land may arise after such a notification has been issued, and those claiming any pre-existing right have a period of at least three months to appear and assert such a right and to make a case for compensation.
TYPES OF CLAIMS WHEN A FOREST IS PROPOSED TO BE MADE RESERVES
- A forest dweller may claim ownership of the land proposed to be made as a reserved forest.
- A claim may be asserted for rights to pasture or forest produce.
- Special provisions apply to the practice of shifting cultivation, which the FSO may prohibit without any compensation.
OFFENCES UNDER INDIAN FOREST ACT,1927
Forest Offence has been defined under Section 2(3) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The offences punishable under the act are classified into two broad categories:
- TRIVIAL OFFENCES: these offences are covered under Section 68 of the Act. These offences can be disposed of by the court provided the defendant makes due compensation.
- Offences that don’t fall under the first category are dealt with by entailing higher punishment. This includes imprisonment, confiscation of private forest produce, tools, vehicles and cattle, etc. In the case of offences relating to reserve forest, the recovery of an amount equal to the damage done to the forest is to be given as compensation.
- CATTLE TRESPASS: When the cattle of a first dweller/ local/ villager enters the restricted forest premises for grazing it is called cattle trespass, which is an offence punishable under the Cattle Trespass Act, 1871.
OBJECTIVES OF INDIAN FOREST ACT,1927
- To consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.
- It also aims to consolidate the previous laws regarding forest into one effective legislation.
- To give the Government the power to classify forest land and optimise its usage.
- To lay down the procedure for declaring an area as Reserved Forest, Protected Forest or Village Forest.
- To define acts that are prohibited inside the Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on its violation.
- To make conservation of forests and wildlife more accountable.
- To protect the forest land from getting exploited by locals.
DRAWBACKS OF INDIAN FOREST ACT,1927
Though the Act is said to be comprehensive, it has fallen back in many aspects.
- While the act has given utmost importance to the economic value of the forest, it has not elaborated on the biodiversity and conservation of the forest.
- The act gives a lot of power in the hands of the bureaucrats which often lead to exploitation and harassment of forest dwellers.
- The act intends to protect locals, tribes and forest dwellers but it deprives many of them of their age-old rights to use the forest and forest produce.
- The act mainly focuses on forest land without giving due consideration to fauna, biodiversity and ecological balance.
Though the Forest Act is a comprehensive and effective legislation, it has fallen back in many aspects as seen from the above discussion. The Act has diverted from its true objective of protecting the forest and its dwellers and has instead given the state the power to use forests to generate revenue in many ways. Thus, the Forest Act requires changes in matters where the focus should be shifted towards conservation and enrichment of sustainable use of the forest resources. The amendment bill of 2019 aims for bringing changes in the Act of 1927 by safeguarding ecological stability. It also aims at preserving the interest of the forest dwellers by giving them certain rights to use the forest and forest produce to carry out their occupation.
Author: Prarthana Vasudevan,
Christ (Deemed to be University), 1st year B.A. L.L.B