In a significant development at the Supreme Court, a recent plea challenging the constitutionality of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 was brought forward by a group of retired civil servants, including former top officials from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The Court, comprising a bench of Justice BR Gavaiand PS Narasimha, recorded the Centre’s assurance that no immediate actions would be taken based on the altered definition of forest land until further orders from the court.

The contentious Issue raised in the plea revolves around the amended Act’s potential dilution of the definition of forest, particularly in contrast to the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the T.N. Godavarman v. Union of India case (W.P. © No.202/1995). The petitioners argued that the recent amendment might restrict the definition of forest, potentially excluding certain categories understood within the conventional dictionary sense, thus altering the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act.

Senior Advocate Prashanto Chandra Sen, representing the petitioners, contended that the amended Section 1A could narrow down the scope of forest land, contrary to the interpretation provided in the T.N. Godavarman case. This contention was met by the Additional Solicitor General BalbirSingh, who assured the bench of no intentions to dilute the Supreme Court’s definition, emphasizing that the guidelines for exemptions to the forest land definition under sub-section (2) of Section 1A were still pending notification by the Central Government.

The crux of the petitioners’ argument lies in their concern that the amendments could significantly undermine India’s established forest governance framework, posing potential threats to the environment, biodiversity, and climate resilience. Their petition challenges the constitutional validity of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, citing violations of key constitutional principles enshrined in Articles 14, 21, 48A, 51©, and 51A(g) of the Indian Constitution.

The former civil servants underscore the adverse implications of the amendments on environmental conservation, stressing the duty imposed on the State to safeguard and enhance the environment. They invoke several pivotal tenets of Indian environmental law, such as the precautionary principle, intergenerational equity, non-regression principle, and public trust doctrine, asserting that these principles have purportedly been disregarded in the amended Act.

Furthermore, the petitioners express apprehensions about exemptions granted for various projects and activities in forest lands, raising concerns that these allowances could serve commercial interests at the expense of broader public welfare. They caution against potential ecological losses resulting from unrestricted land diversion, which they fear could create fragmented deforested areas within India’s forests, leading to significant environmental damage.

A central point of contention also revolves around the perceived lack of clarity in project definitions and the potential for extensive destruction of forest lands. The petitioners specifically highlight provisions related to security-related infrastructure, plantations, and reforested areas, expressing reservations about the vague nature of these clauses and their implications.

The former civil servants also contest the delegated legislative powers granted to the government under the amended act, highlighting the absence of adequate guidelines for exercising such discretion. They argue that this could pave the way for forest land diversion without adequate regulatory oversight, raising concerns about potential unchecked environmental degradation.

This case, identified as Ashok Kumar Sharma, IFS (Retd) & Ors. V. Union of India & Ors. (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1164 of 2023), brings to the fore critical concerns regarding environmental preservation, constitutional obligations, and the potential ramifications of legislative changes on India’s ecological stability and long-term sustainability.

In conclusion, the petitioners assert that India, being highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, cannot afford to compromise its ecological security by permitting rampant deforestation. They stress the crucial role played by natural forests in carbon sequestration, emphasizing the inefficiency of alternatives like plantations in mitigating the climate crisis. They advocate for the striking down of an amendment that they deem arbitrary, intent on circumventing established legal interpretations, and likely to jeopardize India’s ecological and food security.

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