Supreme Court: While answering a question as to whether land covered under a special order issued by the Government of Haryana under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA) is a ‘forest land’ within the meaning of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (the 1980 Forest Act), the 3-judges Bench of A.M. Khanwilkar, Abhay S. Oka*, and C.T. Ravikumar, JJ., held that such lands have all the trappings of forest lands within the meaning of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act. The Court stated,
“When the State Government is satisfied that deforestation of a forest area forming part of a larger area notified under Section 3 is likely to lead to erosion of soil, the power under Section 4 can be exercised.”
The genesis of the case can be traced back to the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) restraining the carrying on of any non-forest activities on the lands of Anangpur village of Ballabhgarh, Faridabad in Haryana. The NGT proceeded on the footing that the lands covered by the order dated 18-08-1992 issued under Section 4 of PLPA were forest lands within the meaning of the 1980 Forest Act. The appellants are running marriage halls on the land subject matter.
Similarly, the holders of the lands (petitioners) in Villages Anangpur, Ankhir, and Mewla Maharajpur in Ballabhgarh submitted that the lands held by them are the subject matter of the three separate orders dated 18-08-1992 issued under Section 4 of PLPA. The petitioners contended that the Faridabad Municipal Corporation acting in collusion and connivance with the owners of the hotels and farmhouses had illegally demolished their structures in the guise of implementing the orders passed by the Supreme Court in Municipal Corporation Faridabad v. Khori Gaon Residents Welfare Association, Special Leave to Appeal Nos. 7220-7221 of 2017 by picking and choosing some structures while not disturbing the hotels and farmhouses.
The gravamen of the Case
that merely because the subject lands are covered by the notifications/orders issued by the State of Haryana under Sections 3, 4, and 5 of PLPA, the same cannot be ipso facto treated as forest lands within the meaning of the 1980 Forest Act.
that the orders under Sections 4 and 5 of PLPA could only be issued in respect of the lands covered by a valid notification under Section 3. Thus, issuing a proper notification under Section 3 of PLPA is a sine qua non for issuing orders under Sections 4 and 5 of PLPA. However, no notification under Section 3 of PLPA was not issued regarding any of the lands in the said three villages.
that PLPA is not a legislation that deals with or is intended to deal with forests on private properties. The limited object of PLPA is to preserve sub-soil water and to stop soil erosion.
that the subject lands were a part of the controlled area notified under Section 29 of the Faridabad Complex (Development and Regulation) Act, 1971, and once a land is designated as a controlled area, it will cease to be a forest.
that as mandated by Section 6 of PLPA, no inquiry was conducted before imposing the regulations and restrictions under Sections 4 and 5 of PLPA. Public notice of the Government Orders dated 18-08-1992 was not published in accordance with Section 7 of PLPA.
Moreover, under Section 7(b), the land owners are entitled to receive compensation from the State Government on account of restrictions imposed by Sections 4 or 5 of PLPA but no such compensation had been paid.
Meaning of Forest
Before dealing with the concept of a forest under the 1980 Forest Act, the Court noted that the 1980 enactment does not provide for an absolute prohibition on the use of any forest land or a part thereof for any non-forest purposes and the State Government can always permit the use of any forest land for non-forest purposes with the prior approval of the Central Government.
The Court further noted that the object of Section 2 of the 1980 Act is to ensure that only sustainable growth/development takes place on forest lands. Noting that the Legislature has used the words “any forest” in Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 after referring to the reserved forests in Clause (i) of Section 2, the Court opined that the intention is to bring all the forests, whether covered by the 1927 Forest Act or not, within the sweep of the 1980 Forest Act.
Therefore, the Court held that the forest as understood by its dictionary meaning is covered by Section 2 and the meaning of forest or forest land within the meaning of Clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 has to be a large or extensive tract of land having a dense growth of trees, thickets, mangroves etc. Further, the Court clarified that if a land is shown as a forest in Government records, it will be governed by Section 2.
The Impact of the Notifications/Orders Issued under PLPA
The object of the PLPA is to provide for the better preservation and protection of certain portions of the territories of Punjab situated within or adjacent to the Siwalik mountain range or affected or liable to be affected by deboisement of forests within that range. Noting that the dictionary meaning of the word “deboisement” is “deforestation”, the Court opined that the object of PLPA is also to protect the territories likely to be affected by deforestation.
Rejecting the argument of the prosecution that the PLPA has been enacted essentially for the conservation of sub-soil water or the prevention of erosion and it has nothing to do with forests, the Court opined,
“Deforestation is one of the accepted and recognized causes of erosion of soil. Thus, one of the objects of PLPA undoubtedly appears to be the protection and preservation of forests as it is one of the measures for preventing erosion of soil.”
However, the Court clarified that there is nothing in Section 3 to suggest that the power to issue notification can be exercised necessarily in respect of forest lands, therefore the lands covered by the notification may also include non-forest lands. The Court held that when the State Government is satisfied that as a result of deforestation or impending deforestation, erosion of a particular area out of the area notified under Section 3 is likely to take place, the State Government may exercise the power under Section 4 by issuing a special order.
“It is too late in the day to challenge the said orders after the lapse of more than 20 years. The ground of the gross delay is itself sufficient to negative the said challenge. The State Government cannot be called upon to show compliance with procedural aspects for the first time after lapse of more than 20 years.”
Moreover, the Court noted that on 10-04-1992, a notification was issued under Section 3 of PLPA in respect of the entire Tehsil of Ballabhgarh and the three special orders dated 18-08-1992 are in respect of specifically described lands in the said three villages in Tehsil of Ballabhgarh. Therefore, the Court opined that it could not be accepted that the special orders under Section 4 were not preceded by a general order under Section 3 of PLPA.
With regard to the contention that the three villages are covered by controlled areas declared under the 1971 Act as well as a final development plan and the same could not be declared as forests, the Court held that as per the language of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act, the said provision overrides all other laws applicable to the State of Haryana including the Central laws. Moreover, once it is found that the lands covered by the said three orders are forest lands covered by clauses (ii) to (iv) of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act, their status as forest lands cannot be altered unless Section 2 is followed.
Thus, the Court held that the lands covered by the special orders issued under Section 4 of PLPA have all the trappings of forest lands within the meaning of Section 2 of the 1980 Forest Act and, therefore, the State Government or competent authority cannot permit its use for non-forest activities without the prior approval of the Central Government with effect from 25-10-1980. However, the Court clarified that only because there is a notification issued under Section 3 of PLPA, the land which is the subject matter of such notification, will not ipso facto become forest land within the meaning of the 1980 Forest Act.
Accordingly, the Court concluded that the lands covered by the special orders dated 18-08-1992 issued under Section 4 of PLPA will be governed by the Supreme Court’s order in Special Leave to Appeal (Civil) Nos.7220-7221 of 2017. The Court directed the authority concerned to remove the remaining illegal structures standing on land covered by the special orders and used for non-forest activities on the said lands erected after 25-10-1980, without prior approval of the Central Government, and further to restore status quo ante including to undertake reforestation/afforestation programmes in right earnest.
To avoid any prejudice to the affected persons, the Court further directed that the action of removal of the illegal structures and/or action of stopping non-forest activities should be taken after affording an opportunity of being heard to the affected persons.
[Narinder Singh v. Divesh Bhutani, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 899, decided on 21-07-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice Abhay S. Oka.
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For the Petitioner: Vikas Singh, Senior Advocate;
For the Applicant/Intervenors: Colin Gonsalves and Sanjay Parikh, Senior Advocates;
For the State: Solicitor General of India.
*Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.