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“Legal Battle Unfolds: Supreme Court breaks silence on controversies surrounding forest land ownership, review jurisdiction, and title disputes”

Case Title: The State Of Telangana v. Mohd Abdul Qasim (Died) Per LRs 

Case No: SLP (C) No. 6937 of 2021 

Dated On: 18th April 2024 

Quorum: Justice M. M. Sundresh and Justice S.V.N. Bhatti 

FACTS OF THE CASE: 

Mohd. Abdul Qasim (died) per LRs. was the respondent, and the petitioner was The State of Telangana & Ors. The case concerned Special Leave to Appeal about a final judgement and order that the High Court for the State of Telangana in Hyderabad had issued on March 19, 2021, which was the subject of an appeal. This case merely revolves around the provisions of The Andhra Pradesh Forest Act,1967 (Hereinafter referred as ‘The Act’) 

 On April 13, 2023, the case was set for hearing before Hon’ble Mr. Justice V. Ramasubramanian and Hon’ble Mr. Justice Pankaj Mithal.  The matter was postponed for a period of two weeks as a result of a letter from the respondent’s attorney requesting one.  

Between 1950-1959, a survey revision occurred in Kompally village. Respondent No. 1 filed an application under Section 87 of the Andhra Pradesh (Telangana Area) Land Revenue Act, seeking rectification of survey errors. The suit land, spanning 106.34 acres, was subject to a notification (Gazette No. 85-B) by the State Government under Section 15 of the A.P. Forest Act, declaring it reserved forest. Despite findings, neither the Forest Department nor the Forest Settlement Officer was involved. The Joint Collector later allowed the plaintiff’s application on 07.07.1981, but its benefit remained uncertain. 

Despite a categorical ruling that the suit property was forest land, an instrumentality of the State took different positions, which it eventually corrected by an affidavit submitted to this Court. Due to the respondents’ differing positions, the impugned decision was able to be given in their favour, overturning the concurrent judgements made by two lower courts based on an assessment of fact and law. The Andhra Pradesh Forest Act was passed with the admirable goals of preserving, expanding, and safeguarding the forest cover. It also included a strong dispute resolution process to address any conflicts that may arise and designated certain areas as reserved forest.  

A Forest Settlement Officer is required by the A.P. Forest Act to be an officer of the Revenue Department, not lower than the level of Revenue Divisional Officer. A notification published in the Andhra Pradesh Gazette allows the State government to designate land as a restricted forest. In order to highlight quasi-judicial capabilities, the Act purposefully avoids designating a forest department officer for this position. 

 

CONTENTIONS OF THE APPELLANT: 

The appellants strongly contended that the Forest Conservation Act defines a “forest” in an extensive manner, encompassing all types of forests. This broad definition would even include private forests within its scope. The implication here is that any land meeting the criteria laid out in the Act could be considered a forest, regardless of its ownership status.  

They emphasised that revenue records alone do not confer title to forest land. In other words, mere entries in official records do not automatically establish ownership. This contention underscores the need to look beyond administrative records and consider other factors when determining land ownership. They asserted that the High Court exceeded its jurisdiction during the review process. Instead of limiting itself to reviewing errors of law, it engaged in a re-hearing, almost functioning as an appellate court. Importantly, it was pointed out that the Respondents failed to establish their title to the disputed land. The High Court’s decision did not address this critical aspect.  

 

CONTENTIONS OF THE RESPONDENTS: 

The respondents vehemently assert that the proceedings before the Forest Settlement Officer have attained finality. In other words, any decisions or determinations made during those proceedings should be considered conclusive. According to the respondents, once title is established, possession naturally follows.  

The respondents argue that the High Court’s review was justified. They contend that an error apparent on the face of the record existed, which warranted re-examination. This assertion challenges any perceived misuse of the review process. They emphasize that there was no attempt to obstruct or interfere with the ongoing proceedings. They also contend that there is no apparent perversity in the impugned order. In other words, the decision made by the court does not appear to be unreasonable or contrary to the evidence. By emphasizing this, they discourage any intervention by the higher court. 

 

LEGAL PROVISIONS:  

  • S.2(f) of The AP Forest Act states the meaning of Forest Officer- “Forest officer” refers to any individual designated by the government or any officer with official authority. 
  • S.10 Claims to certain rights– In cases where the claims pertain to rights in or over land other than those listed below: way, water-course, or water-use rights; pasture rights; or forest produce rights; the Forest Settlement Officer will evaluate the specifics of the claim and, if any, the forest officer’s objections, issue an order either accepting or rejecting the claim in whole or in part and documenting the reasons for the decision.  
  • S.376 Of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908- Any person who feels wronged may request a review of a court decision for good cause or fresh information. 
  • Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 provides for Application for review of judgment. 

 

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND JUDGMENT:  

The court held that this was a classic instance of state officials blatantly abdicating their duty to maintain and preserve the forests as part of their public duties. The court pronounced that they failed to see how the High Court could get involved by relying on evidence presented after the decree, at the request of a party that prevailed alongside the defendant in contest, especially considering that the land is forest land that has been designated as reserved forest.  

The court pointed out 2 instances, or rather, reasons for the lack of jurisdiction, viz,  

  • In relation to an effort to evade the ruling 
  • Acting without jurisdiction 

The court further held that because the plaintiff did not object to the proceedings in accordance with Section 15 of the A. P. Forest Act, the lawsuit is unmaintainable. These are now final and decisive.  

The Court concluded that Due to numerous factual and legal mistakes, the contested judgement is not upholdable under legal scrutiny and thereby, allowing the appeal. 

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Judgment reviewed by- Riddhi S Bhora 

Click to view judgment.

 

 

  

 

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The existing criteria for identifying private forests in the state of Goa are adequate and valid: Supreme Court

Case title: In Re: TN Godavarman Thirumalpad vs Union of India & Ors.

Case no.: Writ Petition Civil No. 202 of 1995

Decided on: 24.01.2024

Quorum: Hon’ble Justice B.R Gavai, Hon’ble Justice Arvind Kumar, Hon’ble Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra.

 FACTS OF THE CASE:

The criteria set forth by the State of Goa and others for designating “forests” within the state are at the root of the current appeals.

The Bombay High Court held in Shivanand Salgaocar v. Tree Officer & Ors. that all lands, whether owned by the government or privately, were subject to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The State of Goa’s Conservator of Forests established guidelines in 1991 for determining what constitutes “forest” on private properties.

In the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, the Court ruled on December 12, 1996, that, for the purposes of Section 2(i) of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, “forest” refers to “all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise,” and that this understanding should be based on the dictionary definition. The Tennessee Godavarman Case ordered all States to form an expert committee to determine what constitutes a “forest” and where it is located.

The Goa government established the Sawant Committee in 1997 to carry out the directive, designating 46.89 square kilometres of private forest. In 2000, the Karapurkar Committee was formed to determine the remaining areas. The current appellant, Goa Foundation, filed a Writ Petition with the court contesting the Karapurkar Committee’s appointment after the committee recommended a revisit to omit some of the forest areas previously identified by the Sawant Committee. Concurrently, the Karapurkar Committee presented its concluding report, outlining 20.18 square kilometres of privately owned forest.

However, the task of both Committees was incomplete because some areas remained unidentified, and the court dismissed the writ petition.

The appellant filed a Writ Petition seeking directions from the State Government of Goa to complete the process of identifying forests and degraded forest lands in accordance with this Court’s order dated 12.12.1996.

The State Government formed two new committees to identify the remaining private forest areas in the North and South Goa districts that had not been identified by previous committees.

The Appellant filed another Writ Petition in the High Court of Bombay, seeking to overturn the canopy density criteria, which should not be less than 0.4. The Appellant contended that the failure to consider forest areas with canopy densities of 0.1-0.4 (10-40%) violated the criteria allegedly accepted by this Court in the case of TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India & Ors. dated 28.03.2008.

The State of Goa again formed two Committees13 to identify the balance areas of private forests that had not been covered by the previous Committees.

The Bombay High Court transferred both Writ Petitions to the NGT on October 17, 2013, renaming them Application No.14 (THC) of 2013 and Application No.16 (THC) of 2013. The NGT dismissed both applications in the impugned order, and thus the appellant is before this Court.

LEGAL PROVISIONS:

The Court clarified that in accordance with the dictionary definition, “forest” refers to “all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected, or otherwise” for the purposes of Section 2(i) of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The Court proceeded to explicate that the phrase “forest land” as used in Section 2 encompasses not only the dictionary definition of “forest,” but also “any area recorded as forest in the Government record, regardless of ownership.”

And the appellant has filed these civil appeals under Section 22 of the National Green Tribunal Act of 2010.

ISSUES:

Whether it is necessary to change the forest identification standards that the Goa government established?

APPELLANTS CONTENTION:

The appellant’s counsel argued that the tribunal erred in failing to issue a merits order based on the fact that the issue is before this Court.

They contended that the identification of private forests on the basis of criteria accepted by FSI and this Court in the order of 2008 passed for determining Net Present Value should also be adopted and followed for forest identification, which would be in the interest of environmental protection and a step towards implementing the order dated 12.12.1996 passed by this Court, which has yet to be met by the State of Goa.

The Appellant also requests that the criteria for identifying private forest/deemed forest on private lands in the State of Goa be revisited using the parameters used by FSI, which are based on 0.1 density forest in an area of 1 hectare.

RESPONDENTS CONTENTION:

According to the respondent(s), res judicata rules render the criteria for forest identification final and unchallengeable. In 1991, the Bombay High Court decided in the Shivanand Salgaonkar case (Bombay High Court decision dated 27.11.1990) what the criteria for identifying forest was.

It was also argued that the criteria for forest identification, which serve as the foundation for the Sawant, Karapurkar reports, were first proposed by the State of Goa’s Forest Department in 1991. The Forest Department proposed a crown density of 40% and a minimum area of 5 ha because conserving small patches of forest land was not sustainable in the long run.

The counsel for the respondents argued that the State of Goa (Sawant and Karapurkar Committees) adopted the aforementioned criteria in 1991 in compliance with this Court’s order dated 12.12.1996 in T.N. Godavarman.

Finally, the counsel for the respondent(s) submits that the criteria for identifying forests and the processes used by different states are governed by an Order issued by this Court on December 12, 1996, in the TN Godavarman case. The Court directed the State Government to develop the criteria based on their local situation, taking into account the fact that Forest, as a concurrent subject, must be determined as such by the State Government in order for the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 to be applicable.

COURT ANALYSIS AND JUDGMENT:

The court determined that the state of Goa’s current standards for designating private forests are sufficient and legitimate, negating the need for revisions. Insofar as they exempt the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 from application on areas less than 1 hectare and require the cutting of no more than 75 trees, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change guidelines and the Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 are unambiguous and clear.

The court further held that, acknowledging that there cannot be consistent standards for such identification throughout the nation, this Court specifically assigned the task of identifying forest areas to Expert Committees to be formed by State Governments in its order dated 12.12.1996, recognising this fact.

They conclude that the current appeals are not worthy of being accepted in light of the previously stated information. Accordingly, the same position is rejected and the contested order dated July 30, 2014 is upheld.

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Written by – Surya Venkata Sujith