• Swati Tolambia

A struggle to define Forest: T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India

Citation: AIR 1996 (9) SCR 982.

Judges: A.K. Patnaik, Surinder Singh Nujjar, Fakkir Mohd. Kalifulla

Facts of the case:

The case started with the representative suit for an on behalf of the people living in and around the Nilgiri Forests on the Western Ghats. The case challenged that the actions of the state of Tamil Nadu, the Collector, Nilgiris District and the district Forest officer, Gudalur and the Timber committee. The petitioner argued to stop illegal felling of timber in the areas and highlighted that the respondents have in collusion with certain vested interest allowed trespassers to encroach and enter upon the forest land for the purpose of plantations.

Issues: There were the following issues being highlighted in case :

a) Issue an appropriate writ, order or direction directing the state of Tamil Nadu to take steps to stop felling and clearing activities in the forests of Nilgiri District and direction to stop conversation of forest land to plantation or other purposes.

b) To direct respondents to remove all unauthorized and illegal occupants of forest lands and to stop transport and removal of timber from forests

c) To appoint a committee for assessing the damage caused to the forest in the Western Ghats.


The Supreme Court said that forests would be defined by their “dictionary meaning” and shall apply to all thickly wooded areas. It also assumed responsibility for implementing the Forest Conservation Act, 1960 with this new definition. The order extended protection to all areas with natural forests irrespective of their ownership. The court ordered all forest activity sawmills and mining to be suspended in forest areas and stopped felling of trees. A ban on the movement of illicit timber was imposed.

The Supreme Court using constitutional mandate as the writ of “continuing mandamus”. The court asked lower courts from admitting such application, leaving the Supreme Court the sole administrator of the law when it came to forest matters. This was until the creation of the National Green Tribunal in 2010 to dispose of the cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources”.

The court ordered the constitution of an expert body, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), in May 2002. Hearing of matters by CEC lead to the establishment of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, or CAMPA, and the system of seeking prior approval from Supreme Court for any commercial activity in PAs.


Though it seems like Supreme Court gave an order in 1996, however, this case didn't end there and is still continuing though not through active hearings. This case has been criticized by corporates as “excessive judicial activism” based on growing interventions of conservationists, were becoming an impediment to development. Some of the effects of this case are

1) Lack of judicial foresight which leads to the devastation of timber industry: a total of 31, 7000 hectares of forest, was a source of income of around 90% forest dwellers and due to SC order, the economy generating from timber industry got affected and it fell from 90% profits to 10%. Supreme Court while giving order did not weigh the economic destruction it could cause.

2) Failure of working plans and the black market for timber: as state machinery was very slow in developing working plans for the growth of timber industries, black marketing started and then too instead of checking on the plans, SC fined the MeEF RS 5,000 for not devising the required comprehensive plans.

3) Failure of the doctrine of separation of power: Supreme Court while addressing the case encroached upon the legislative powers by making laws relating to use of timber and its felling and also executed themselves and thus do not followed the doctrine of separation of powers.

The Supreme Court’s aggressive forest management has incurred large economic and social costs. It remains to be seen whether the court can successfully transfer control to the appropriate governmental organizations, whether it can effectively manage the organizations it has formed, and whether it will avoid further economic and social disruption while attempting to restore India’s forest cover.


1) Armin Rosencranz, Edward Boeing and Brinda Dutta, the Godavarman Case: the India Supreme Court’s Breach of Constitutional Boundaries in managing Indians Forests, ELR NEWS & ANALYSIS, http://www.eli.org.

2) P.k. Manohar, Praveen Bhargav, The architect of an omnibus forest-protection case, THE HINDU, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/The-architect-of-an-omnibus-forest-protection-case/article14470903.ece

3) https://indiankanoon.org/doc/187366700/.


Swati Tolambia, is currently studying law from School of Mody University of Science & Technology, Laxmangarh, Sikar (Raj).

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