News Excerpt
Recently, Karnataka Government has announced to declassify lakhs of hectares of deemed forests land in the state (nearly 67%) and planned to hand over to Revenue authorities.

•    Preservation of forest areas in India are under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
•    After Godavarman case judgment in 1996, it is mandatory for state government to take permission in such cases from Supreme Court (SC).  
•    It has been more than 20 years since the Supreme Court asked all states in the country to identify deemed forests, but their status in several states is still unclear.
•    A fresh application showing the extent of land to be released from the deemed forest category as 6.64 lakh hectares is about to filed by karanataka.

What is deemed Forest
    While the concept of deemed forests has not been clearly defined in any law including the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
    As per the SC, it covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of the Forest Conservation Act.
    According to Supreme Court, the provisions enacted in the Forest Conservation Act 1980 for the conservation of forest and the matters connected therewith should apply to all forest so understood irrespective of the ownership or classification thereof.
    But, An expert committee constituted by the Karnataka government after the Supreme Court order identified ‘deemed forests’ as “land having the characteristic of forests irrespective of the ownership’.
    As per the expert committee, thickly wooded areas of the Revenue Department not handed over to the Forest Department; thickly wooded areas recommended to be handed over to the Forest Department; thickly wooded land distributed to grantees but not cultivated; and thickly wooded plantations of the Forest Department could all be ‘deemed forests’.

Utilization of deemed forest land
    Land removed from the classification of deemed forest would be transferred to the Revenue Department.
    In order to utilize the land the government department would give first preference to government institutions and civic amenities. The remaining land would be transferred to those who have been tilling it for a long time based on various procedures.

Deemed Forest in Karnataka and Issue
    Reports by expert committees in 1997 and 2002 identified 43.18 lakh hectares of forest land for conservation in Karnataka, which included 33.23 lakh hectares notified forest area as per forest records and 9.94 lakh hectares ‘deemed forests’.
    In 2014, Former government decided to have a relook at the categorisation of forests. The 'statutory forest' has been wrongly classified as ‘deemed forest’ by the expert committee constituted after the Supreme Court order.
    The Definition of forests was applied to identify thickly wooded areas as deemed forests too, thus a well-defined scientific, verifiable criterion was not used, and this had resulted in a subjective classification of areas as deemed forests.
    The subjective classification in turn resulted in conflicts between the Forest Department and other departments like Revenue, Irrigation, Public Works and Energy further that land was randomly classified as deemed forest by officials, causing hardship to farmers in some areas. There is also a commercial demand for mining in some regions designated as deemed forests.
    It is being cited that large amounts of agriculture and non-forest land are “unscientifically” classified. This move would have impact on farmers, as well as barred large tracts from mining, the classification was done without taking into account needs of people.

Way Forward
     States Government must constitute committees in compliance of SC verdict, additionally states-level committees should take care of regional forest diversity and classification should be in that manner along with rights of forest dwellers. Or else States inactivity to form committees could result into bone of contention.
     Although, India has taken many steps to conserve forest and to improve forest cover. There is dire need to take citizens on board to rejuvenate, conserve and protect the deemed forests as well. Government can use CAMPA fund provisions to give monetary support to such type of initiatives.
•    The SC, in a 1996 judgment, had broadened the definition of forest.
•    SC has included not just land classified as forest under forest or revenue departments, but also those that are forests according to the definition of a forest. (i.e.- deemed Forest)
•    SC stated that States have to form committees to identify forests, irrespective of the nature of land ownership or whether they are notified, recognised or classified in a time-bound manner.
•    There are forests that are notified either with the forest department or revenue department. Then there are those areas that are like forests but are neither recorded, nor notified.
•    The Supreme Court had ordered that the states identify and classify these as deemed forests.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, CAMPA, Forest Survey, National Green Mission