The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has slapped a fine of ₹1 crore on the Odisha government for undertaking guava plantation on 343 acres, which has been categorised as Sal Forest in Jajpur district.
One Tapan Kumar Baral had moved the NGT alleging that trees were being illegally felled in the forestland of about 377.83 acres for plantation of horticultural species in Damodarpur, Botalanda and Kharagala in Jajpur district. It was further alleged the category of the land was Patara Jungle and Sal Jungle and heavy machinery were used for clearing the forestland.
Hearing the case, the NGT constituted a committee comprising a scientist from the Integrated Regional Office of the Ministry of Forest and Climate Change, the Jajpur District Collector and the Cuttack Divisional Forest Officer.
Though the land was categorised as forestland, the forest department had not received any proposal for the diversion of forestland under the Forest Conservation Act 1980. The committee reported that no tree was felled on the land.
The NGT wondered, “question is when the land in question is identified as ‘Sal Jungle’, how could it be utilized for Guava Plantation? Guava trees are not trees identified as ‘Sal Jungle’. Once the nature of the land is classified as ‘Sal Jungle’ or ‘Patita Jungle’ the said land could not have been utilized for any purposes other than forest purposes without seeking permission from the Central Government for use of the said forest land for non-forest purposes as provided under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.”
“We are surprised that the Jajpur District Magistrate, and Assistant Director of Horticulture in their affidavits have taken the stand that Guava Plantation will not result in ecological imbalance rather it will improve the ecological balance in the locality. This shows the gross ignorance of the district officials including the District Magistrate, Jajpur, wherein he emphasizes in his affidavit that monoculture plantation will improve the ecological diversity of the area,” the tribunal observed.
“According to the District Magistrate, Jajpur, the plantation of Guava trees does not attract the provisions of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. However, it is quite evident from the FC Act, 1980 itself that cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops or medicinal plants are permitted as non-forestry purposes and hence any conversion of forest area for planting of Guava trees (horticulture crop) would attract the provisions of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The District Magistrate, Jajpur, has shown his ignorance towards the relevant Act and Rules in this regard,” it pointed out.
‘Flagrant violation of Act’
The NGT Bench, comprising Judicial Member Amit Sthalekar and expert member Saibal Dasgupta, said, “we find that the Assistant Director of Horticulture, Jajpur, and the Collector and District Magistrate, Jajpur have acted irresponsibly and have sought to justify their illegal act in permitting the forestland to be utilized for non-forest purposes in flagrant violation of the provisions of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.”
The government was directed to deposit ₹ 1 crore with the Divisional Forest Officer, Cuttack Forest Division, towards environmental compensation within two months and file an affidavit of compliance in this regard.
The NGT, however, said the district administration was free to go for the diversion of forestland for non-forest use under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.