1996 was a watershed in forest governance in India. Since then, the Supreme Court of India has played a pioneering role in forest conservation, donning the mantle of the principal decision-maker in issues relating to forests and wildlife. This has led to fundamental changes in the pattern of forest governance and decision-making.

In order to keep track of the latest developments in the courts, and most importantly, make this information available through electronic and other means to interested persons, an information dissemination service for forest and wildlife cases called Forest Case Update has been launched recently. FC Update, as envisaged by its creators, Kanchi Kohli (member of the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh) and Supreme Court advocate Ritwick Dutta, will be a neutral body that will watch and report the developments in the two landmark cases that have given us this transformation. These cases are:

What is the Godavarman Case?

On 12 December 1996, forest governance got a thumbs-up as the Supreme Court expanded the scope of the term "forest". In T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad Vs Union of India and Environmental Awareness Forum, Jammu and Kashmir vs State of Jammu and Kashmir, the SC reinterpreted the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. It now included within its scope not only forests as mentioned in government record but all areas that are forests in the dictionary meaning of the term irrespective of the nature of ownership and classification thereof. The case came to be popularly known as the Godavarman case.

Far-reaching consequences

Both the Godavarman and the CEL WWF cases have led to fundamental changes that have wide impact on forest management. For example:

1) No forest, National Park or Sanctuary can be dereserved without the approval of the Supreme Court.

2) No non-forest activity is permitted in any National Park or Sanctuary even if prior approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 had been obtained.

3) An interim order in 2000 prohibited the removal of any dead or decaying trees, grasses, driftwood, etc from any area comprising a National Park or Sanctuary. It was also directed that if any order to the contrary had been passed by any State government or other authorities, that order shall be stayed.

4) New authorities, committees and agencies have been set up such as the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Agency.

1. The T. N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad Vs Union of India and ors (WP No 202 of 1995), concerning the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

2. The Centre for Environmental Law (CEL), WWF vs Union of India and ors (WP No 337 of 1995), concerning the issue of settlement of Rights in National Parks and Sanctuaries and other issues under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

These cases are being heard for the last nine years and are a part of what is termed as "continuing mandamus", whereby the Courts, rather than passing final judgments, keep on passing orders and directions with a view to monitor the functioning of the executive. These have tremendous impact and implication on forest management and governance, and yet, not many environment and human rights groups, or even Government agencies are aware of the latest developments. Existing methods of reporting such judgments and orders are generally inadequate and do not reach the concerned groups in time.

The FC Update newsletter service intends to address this lacuna. As part of this initiative, the founders aim at:

1. Distributing a free monthly electronic newsletter through which information and analysis on past orders, judgments, and petitions will be disseminated. This will not be a discussion forum but a mailing list.
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2. Flash news on when the cases are likely to appear in court, what matters will be heard as well as what orders were issues will be sent out to all on the e-newsletter mailing list as well as a few select existing list serves.

Kohli and Dutta also intend on putting together a database on both the CEL and Godavarman cases (orders, judgments, petitions) as well as orders of the Central Empowered Committee, an authoritative body set up to adjudicate on forest and wildlife related issues. The idea is to respond to specific information on an ongoing basis.

As the first FC Update newsletter released in June states, so far, very few groups have access to the current developments in the Godavarman case. Also, understanding Godavarman is not easy. However, an informed society alone can guarantee the effective implementation of the Court's orders in this case and also highlight shortcomings that require modification and clarification. Hence the June update concentrated mostly on the happenings in the case. It provided background information required to understand the relevance of the issue at stake, and appreciate the consequences spelt out in the orders of the Supreme Court.

Elaborating on the data-gathering methods, Kohli says, "Ritwick Dutta has collected a substantial portion of information on past orders. This is one source of information. To keep our records updated as well for information on newer cases, one sits through the hearings. Reports are then developed for the newsletter subscribers. Information is further substantiated with reports on the formal orders, as and when the courts issue rulings."

With the first newsletter out, the plan so far is to keep the venture going on the part funding it has received from the Foundation for Ecological Security, and to look for support funds in the future. The takers are undoubtedly going to be many, given the relevance of these two cases. As Kohli points out, current subscribers to this newsletter are a cross-section of people with varied interests - forest officials, NGO activists (policy and grassroots), academicians, journalists, lawyers, interested individuals, and so on.

"The need for such dissemination has been discussed several times by a variety of people. But often the information just does not reach the places where it matters," point out the creators. Now, with the Forest Case Update in place, an attempt to remedy the situation is taking shape.