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T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad

T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad

The extraordinary if unassuming T.N. Godavarman made history in 1996 when he won a legal victory in favour of forest protection. Bittu Sahgal remembers this quiet hero who too many have forgotten.

I was sitting with Valmik Thapar at his home in New Delhi when the order was unleashed upon a political class that thought they were by right the ‘owners’ of forest India. I had never heard of Mr. Godavarman before that, but both Valmik and I agreed that if by some miracle the court followed through and we were able to prevent the establishment from diverting attention, burying the file, or otherwise encouraging administrative lethargy to negate the order, then history was likely to be made.

History was made. And T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad was the pivot around which it was written.

The true importance of the victory, of this not-so-ordinary man (he was part of the princely family of Nilambur Kovilakam in Kerala’s Malabar region), is best comprehended by reading the text of the order passed by Justices J. S. Verma and B. N. Kirpal in response to the Writ Petition (C) No. 202/95, together with WP (C) No. 171/96, which was passed by the learned judges way back in December 1996.

“All on going activity within any forest in any State throughout the country, without prior permission of Central Govt., must stop forthwith - Running of saw mills including veneer or plywood mills and mining of any mineral, being non-forest purposes, not permissible without prior approval of Central Government and must stop forthwith - Felling of trees in Tirap and Changlang in State of Arunachal Pradesh to be totally banned – Felling of trees in all other forest to remain suspended in accordance with working plan of State Govt., as approved by Central Government – Movement of cut trees and timber from any of the seven North-Eastern States to any other State to be completely banned - All the States must constitute Expert Committees and submit reports to the Supreme Court – Specific directions for states of J & K, U.P. and W.B. and T.N. also issued – Notwithstanding the closure of any saw mills or other wood-based industry pursuant to this order, the workers employed in such units will continue to be paid their full emoluments due and shall not be retrenched or removed from service for this reason – Ministry of Railways to file an affidavit giving full particulars including the extent of wood consumed by them, the source of supply of wood, and the steps taken by them to find alternatives to the use of wood – These orders and directions to continue till further orders of the Court and will operate and be complied with by all concerned, notwithstanding any order at variance, made or which may be made hereafter, by any authority including the Central or state Government or any court (including High Court) or Tribunal.

Shri H.N. Salve, Amicus Curiae submits that even the contents of the affidavits filed by Shri Ashok Kumar, the then Chief Secretary of the J & K Government and Shri P. P. Sharma, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests indicate that these has been a clear disobedience of this Court’s order dated May 10, 1996 by these two officers and the other officers involved in that process. He submitted that suitable action is called for against the concerned officials. We have heard Shri J.S. Manhan, learned counsel for the State of J & K who also represents these officers. It does appear to us prima facie that the submission of Shri Salve may be found correct and proceedings for punishment of the above two officers and the other concerned officers of the Government of J & K for disobedience of this Court’s order may have to be initiated.

When the above contempt notice was issued by Justices J.S. Verma and B.N. Kirpal, I was seriously taken aback. It was unheard of for senior government officials to be scolded so severely and so publicly by judges. And certainly not for environmental or forest-related issues, which were generally treated with disdain by the political, administrative and business class who used the old, weather-beaten slogan of garibi hatao (remove poverty) and roti, kapada aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) as fig leaves for personal or political gain at the cost of the true assets of the poor – soil, air and water.

What led this otherwise mild-natured man to file the case was a simple matter of a citizen concerned at the apathy of a system that was watching idly as the forests of Gudalur in Tamil Nadu were plundered by all and sundry. They were private forests that were taken over by the Madras government under what was called the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1969. Massive timber felling continued apace, with forest and government officials complicit in the destruction as trees were literally rolled down the slopes from where massive trucks transported the timber to markets.

Godavarman's family owned more than one lakh acres of prime forest land spread across Tamil Nadu and Kerala, including Mudumalai Sanctuary area which was leased to the British government. Once, on seeing logs upon rosewood logs stacked for sale, he realised that in the name of ‘justice’, the state was merely enriching contractors with the connivance of officials such as District Collectors working in collusion with local politicians. His friend and lawyer A.S. Nambiar then suggested that legal recourse be taken.

The Supreme Court did not merely agree with Mr. Godavarman, but also saw fit to redefine the very word ‘forest’ as a result of Godavarman’s ‘Forest Case’. Justices Verma and Kirpal ordered that the dictionary meaning of the word ‘forest’ will apply to all lands, whether privately or publicly owned. The effect of this was to bring forested India under the stringent provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, which had been passed thanks to the late Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

The effect was electric. Constitutional jurisprudence ruled the day with the writ of continuing mandamus. This ensured decades of protection for forests. The Northeast, for instance, which had become a milch cow for Kolkata businessmen who plundered the forests without let or hindrance, got an extra lease on life and thousands of saw mills were closed down.

It was this order that gave rise to the creation of the statutory Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court, whose brief was to deal with the hundreds of Interlocutory Applications, or IAs, that began to flood the highest court in the land.

Ironically, this judgement found the pairing of unlikely interests. Human rights groups criticised it as being ‘anti-people’, and large corporates and policymakers in government labelled it as an example of ‘unwarranted judicial activism’.

But the fact is that T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad enabled the court and public-spirited people to prevent the plunder of forest for financial gain by businessmen and for political gain by politicians who had been distributing land in exchange for votes for decades. It is worth remembering that without this judgement, it would have been unthinkable to remove the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited from ravaging the water sources of the Western Ghats in Karnataka.

Having challenged the state (which is still trying desperately to weaken environmental laws and to create loopholes through this and that exception, and the introduction of new legal rules) Mr. Godavarman stepped out of the limelight and left the implementation of his case to the hundreds of public-spirited individuals and NGOs and to the CEC (now no longer a statutory body, having been replaced by the National Green Tribunal).

Few wildlife groups knew then, and for that matter nor did Mr. Godavarman, that his legal victory would bequeath to India its finest chance to counter the worst impacts of climate change by putting a brake on unmitigated deforestation (which now includes mangroves), thus aiding carbon sequestration and preventing millions of tons of locked forest-carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

This is the true legacy this unassuming wildlife hero bequeathed his wife Sukanya Devan and their three children. This is the legacy they share with each one of us and generations unborn.

Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.


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