Forests a national asset and major contributor to financial wealth: SC

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April 20, 2024

Forests a national asset and major contributor to financial wealth: SC

The Supreme Court has asserted in a judgment that forests in India are a national asset and a major contributor to the nation’s financial wealth.

“It is the spirit of the forest that moves the earth,” a Bench headed by Justice M.M. Sundresh observed in a judgment based on an appeal filed by the State of Telangana against a High Court decision “graciously gifting” forest land to a private person. The State’s forest officials had made matters worse by filing conflicting affidavits in court. The apex court ordered ₹5 lakh in costs from both the State government and the private persons. The State was asked to open an enquiry against its own forest officials.

The judgment has come at a pivotal time when the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act (FCAA) 2023, has attracted widespread criticism. The FCAA is accused of giving a free hand to States to regularise encroachments in protected forests and determine diversions of forestlands. The Act has been criticised for paving the way for the commercial exploitation of forests.

“Depletion and disappearance of forests would ultimately lead to a massive extinction of organisms,” Justice Sundresh observed.

The court said concepts of carbon credit and green accounting to evaluate a nation’s wealth had become a reality. “A country with excess forest cover would be in a position to sell its excess carbon credit to the one in deficit. This in turn underlines the significance of forests in contributing to the financial wealth of a country,” the court noted.

A major sink

The judgment said India’s forests serve as a major sink of carbon dioxide (CO2). The value of mitigation has put a conservative $5 per tonne of CO2 locked in forests, this huge sink of about 24,000 mt of CO2 is worth $120 billion, or ₹6 lakh crores.

The court quoted from a 2009 report of the Ministry of Environment and Forests titled ‘India’s Forest and Tree Cover: Contribution as a Carbon Sink’, which said that from “1995 to 2005, the carbon stocks stored in our forests and trees have increased from 6,245 million tonnes (mt) to 6,662 mt, registering an annual increment of 38 mt of carbon or 138 mt of CO2 equivalent”.

Justice Sundresh highlighted the protective role of forests against climate change. It referred to a 2022-2023 report of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on the macroeconomic impact of climate change and changing patterns of rainfall. These factors could cost the economy 2.8% of its GDP and depress the living standards of nearly half of its population by 2050.

“India could lose anywhere around 3% to 10% of its GDP annually by the year 2100 due to climate change,” the judgment noted from the RBI document.

“The report of the RBI presents a very disturbing scenario. The report clearly suggests the enormous potential impact of climate change on society, leading to serious job losses in every sector. Therefore, the adverse effect will be on the future of the nation as a whole, as against an identifiable group,” the judgment said.

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Forests a national asset and major contributor to financial wealth: SC | Vaid ICS Institute