Entire forests in the State might die in the future if immediate steps are not taken to arrest the spread of exotic and invasive species, the Madras High Court wrote on Friday and directed the Centre as well as the State government to use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) funds to annihilate such species.
Justices V. Bharathidasan and N. Sathish Kumar ordered that tribal communities and others, who live in coexistence with the forests and wildlife in and around national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves and reserved forests, must be engaged to eradicate the invasive species and restore the native shola forests and grasslands.
Though the Centre argued that the work of removal of exotic and invasive species could not be undertaken under the MGNREGS, the judges rejected such submission on the ground that ‘afforestation’ was one of the activities permitted under the scheme. They said, afforestation could not be given the constrictive meaning of planting saplings alone.
“In our view, afforestation includes removal of weeds and planting indigenous species in the forest. The meaning of afforestation cannot be confined only to planting of trees, it should also include the steps to be taken to protect the existing forest from dying automatically due to the invasive plants,” the Division Bench wrote.
Further, observing that annihilation of species such as lantana, wattle, eucalyptus, prosopis juliflora and others would be a mammoth task that had to be carried out in phases over a few years, and it might generate huge amount of felled timber, the judges permitted the Forest Department to sell the timber in the open market at a competitive price.
The court also ordered that the sale proceeds be maintained in a separate corpus account and periodic statements be filed in the court, once in every three months, regarding the extent of land from which the species were removed, the quantity of timber felled and sold and the quantum of sale proceeds realised from such sale.
The revenue should be used for the further removal of invasive species; the tribal communities should be given priority in utilising the timber to make furniture and other such things, the Bench added. It said government undertakings, such as the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation, could also be given priority in the sale.