The Woods

One man’s quest to save a Nilgiris forest, and how it changed Indian environmental law.

The Woods - by Mohit Rao, illustration by Akshaya Zachariah

In the evergreen forests of Gudalur in the Nilgiris, there is a moment of pause when the honey gatherers of the Kattunayakan tribe spot a hive dangling high above them. Before they begin climbing, they mutter a prayer of permission: trees are spiritual custodians in the Kattunayakan tradition. If the tree is willing, they will climb it.

To get to the honey, branches must be broken, but there are rules. Hives attached to small branches, no matter how plumped with honey, are left alone. To allow rebuilding, whole hives are not exploited. Beeswax is to be left for sloth bears.

On his many visits to the forests of Gudalur, T.N. Godavarman would likely have heard of the ways of the Kattunayakans. Godavarman was from a family of Malayali landowners, the Nilambur Kovilakam clan, which had once owned over 80,000 acres of virgin forests in the Nilgiris before they were acquired by the state. It is likely he was incensed, through the 1980s and early 1990s, to see the rampant logging of teak, rosewood and wild jackfruit trees.

On 7 April 1995, Godavarman filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court “on behalf of the people living in and around the Nilgiris,” seeking action against timber felling in Gudalur. He did not know then that Writ Petition (Civil) 202/1995 would precipitate a sprawling, complex, and unpredictable legal proceeding that influenced Indian environmental policy and jurisprudence for the next generation. Over a quarter century, there have been about 6,000 applications and 1,170 orders in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India & Others. 88 judges have considered its central question: What is a forest?

In answering that question, the court has appointed itself guardian and benefactor of the country’s jungles and wildlife. Over the years, the ‘what’ question has unfurled into questions of ‘who’ (has access), ‘how’ (must resources be extracted), ‘when’ (is it okay to exploit) and ‘why’ (protection is paramount).

The court’s orders in Godavarman have variously, and sometimes simultaneously, saved pristine swathes of land, collapsed local markets and brought the state machinery to its knees. Infamously, a few have precipitated the eviction of hundreds of thousands of forest-dwellers.

The case crystallized some of the conflicts that became defining features of Indian life and politics in the new millennium: judiciary versus executive; legislature versus judiciary; economy versus ecology. It made manifestly clear the divergence in the philosophies of the wildlife conservation and the tribal rights movements. Depending on who you talk to, the Godavarman case either saved India’s forests and wildlife, or is a textbook example of the perils of exclusionary conservation and judicial activism.

But in 1995, a lithe, wispy-haired 64-year-old just wanted to save some woods.

The Landowners


he Nilgiris rise around Gudalur as if holding the plantation town in their palm. Its location at the junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu makes it a satellite stop for tourists and traders shuttling between Ooty, Coimbatore, Wayanad and Mysuru. Elephants pass through on their way to and from the Mudumulai Tiger Reserve and the New Amarambalam Wildlife Sanctuary.

Godavarman’s family, vassals of the zamorin of Calicut (now Kozhikode), used to have a fiefdom in Nilambur, now a couple of hours’ drive away. In 1836, Godavarman’s ancestors made their way through their own teak forests to reach the hills and wetlands of the Nilgiris, which were home to several Adivasi communities. [1]

Under convoluted Malabar tenancy laws, the Kovilakam (house or manor) claimed around 80,088 acres, around 324, around Gudalur. The wetlands were converted into a mosaic of paddy fields and leased to tenants. “They left the forests largely untouched. Tribals could collect forest produce without paying rent to the Kovilakam,” Stan Thekaekara, an activist and social entrepreneur, explained. Thekaekara has been working with the Adivasi people of the region for over three decades. “There seems to have been an agreeable relationship,” he said. “There are records showing tribals giving bananas to the Kovilakam who would in turn present them silver bracelets.”

Over the nineteenth century, this became the site of successive waves of colonial extractivism. In 1847, coffee entered this fragile ecosystem when a British general leased out 20,000 acres from the Kovilakam for a plantation. Then, in the 1870s, Gudalur had a brief tryst as a gold town as a result of what came to be known as the Wayanad Gold Rush. [2]

“He knew every inch of the forest. He saw himself as its protector.”

N. Rajendra Varma on his father

On its heels came the other British obsession: tea. Plantations had already begun to thrive in nearby Ooty. The Kovilakam, recognized as janmis [3] or hereditary landowners, leased out more than half their holdings. “They handed out 99-year leases, and plantations came to replace forests,” Thekaekara said. “The actual destruction starts here. The Kovilakam might have a special relationship with forests, but they did contribute to its destruction indirectly.”

By the twentieth century, Gudalur’s commercial prospects attracted waves of migrations. Agriculturalists from Kerala arrived to run tea plantations. By the late 1960s, thousands of Hill Country Tamils had been repatriated to the region. [4]

Around this time, the Nilambur patriarch died, leaving the sprawling estate to be partitioned among 113 members of the Kovilakam. Godavarman was appointed an honorary receiver to oversee the partition of properties and represent the family in court matters.

Born in 1930, he was the youngest of four brothers and two sisters. While his siblings found work elsewhere, Godavarman devoted himself to looking after his family land. “He knew every inch of the forests. He really saw himself as the protector of forests,” says N. Rajendra Varma, Godavarman’s eldest son and a lecturer in a local college.

After independence, the state attempted to regulate private forests through a series of legislations. One of them was the Janmam Estate Act of 1969. [5] It sought to loosen the grip of the Kovilakam over the vast estate by doing away with hereditary ownership, and allowing tenants and cultivators, ryots, to claim possession. The state would take over undeveloped estate land and exercise control over Gudalur’s forests.

Plantation owners and Godavarman, as the representative of the Kovilakam, took the Tamil Nadu government to court over this. First, they challenged the constitutionality of the Act. Then, they sought to protect their claim to ownership. Finally, they sued for compensation. There has been no final resolution in the matter in 50 years.

The Courts


hile the Kovilakam court battle was underway, timber-felling and encroachments continued unabated. In the late 1980s, Godavarman became increasingly disturbed by the sight of labourers hacking down massive trees that were carted away in timber trucks.

Godavarman reached out to Jacob Mathew, the Kovilakam’s long-time advocate. “He told me we needed to go to court against the timber cutting,” Mathew recalled. “We had been filing so many cases against the government over the land that it didn’t feel like a big deal to file one more. We sent the petition to his friend who was a lawyer in Delhi.”

In Delhi, advocate PK Manohar filed a public interest litigation (PIL) on Godavarman’s behalf. In April 1995, the matter was listed in Court No 3, before a bench of justices JS Verma and Sujata Manohar. First, the court would have to decide on admissibility—was it worth the Supreme Court’s time to hear the petition? Godavarman’s lawyers were worried. Justice Verma had a reputation for being tough on PILs.

“When the matter was called out, to our surprise, Justice Verma said that they were issuing notices to the Tamil Nadu government,” Manohar said. ”He disclosed that Justice Manohar (no relation to P.K. Manohar) had called him after reading the petition and suggested that the matter be considered since she had recently visited Ooty and noticed the large-scale destruction of forests.”

Not only was the matter admitted, but the court even called for a stay in timber felling. Its order noted the collusion between government agencies and timber contractors.

On the ground, however, little changed. “One day, we saw a line of trucks, maybe around 90 of them, loaded with timber and waiting by the road. The workers told my father that influential people were involved. We photographed all this, and my father submitted the photographs as evidence in court,” said Varma, Godavarman’s son.

The court summoned the forest administration of Nilgiris district, and an officer appeared before the court in December 1995. The district collector of the Nilgiris, the area’s seniormost bureaucrat, happened to be in Delhi on other business, and popped by on the day of the hearing. He’d only intended to observe the proceedings. “But the advocate on record told Justice Verma that I was in attendance,” Shashi Shekhar told me. “I was put on the dock.”

An angry Justice Verma asked Shekhar if he was aware of the illegal tree cutting, which put him in a bind. “If I said yes, it would go against the statements of the forest officer. We would be in trouble. If I said no, it would be against my conscience. All I could say was ‘Not to the best of my knowledge,’” said Shekhar, who retired in 2016.

The evasive answer further rankled Justice Verma. His irritation became clearer each time he repeated the question. “This is such a simple question…Do you understand English?” he asked in open court. When Shekhar continued to be ambiguous, he pronounced: “You are either inefficient or corrupt.”

Shekhar was given time to file an affidavit, but he was rattled by the unexpected dressing-down. Back in the Nilgiris, he collected satellite imagery as evidence of timber felling.  Godavarman’s petition contended that logging permissions from local authorities were fraudulent: it violated a law which stated that all “non-forestry activities,” including timber felling, had to be approved by the central government. Gudalur’s situation was not straightforward—there were private forests and tenancy plantations, acres of which were already mired in the legal disputes around compulsory acquisition. Shekhar wondered whether the forestry laws would apply to disputed land that was not administered by the government.

The Tamil Nadu government gave Shekhar the go-ahead to hire a counsel. He chose a man who had garnered some fame in high-profile corporate and tax suits: Harish Salve. “He immediately recognized the legal complexities of the case that involved Janmam land and private forests,” said Shekhar.

Salve’s involvement was a turning point. In a few months, he was appointed amicus curiae—someone who assists the court by offering information and expertise. It was under Salve’s watch that a local case became a matter with national implications.

Salve had been initially engaged by a contractor who had lost a government bid for tapping khair trees in Jammu. [6] In the Supreme Court, they had raised certain environmental concerns to defeat the winner’s claim. After the matter was posted for hearing, the warring contractors settled out of court. But because the matter raised serious issues related to the environment, the court appointed Salve as amicus and requested him to “redraw the pleadings.” “The rest,” as Salve wrote in an email to me, “is history.”

There was another reason for the cause to assume the proportion it did. Around the same time that Salve was appointed, two Supreme Court judges were on holiday in Arunachal Pradesh. They were B.N. Kirpal, who had just been elevated, and Kuldip Singh, who was known as a “green judge” for his judgements in important environmental cases. Out along India’s north-eastern border, they would witness a sight similar to the one that tipped Godavarman over the edge: lines of timber-carrying trucks and denuded forests.

“Justice Kirpal remarked that perhaps they should form an impromptu two-judge bench at the rest house and deliver orders,” a lawyer close to him recounted on the condition of anonymity. “On their return to Delhi, Justice Kirpal saw this petition about tree felling in Gudalur and convinced Justice Verma to include him on the bench.”

By September 1996, the court had sent notices to all states regarding the timber trade. On 12 December 1996, the bench answered a question.

The Trees

“What is a forest?” may seem like an innocuous question. But around the world, the definition eludes scientific and political consensus. [7] The Indian Forest Act of 1927 (IFA) allows state governments to declare any land they own or have rights over as a “reserved forest.” But, there was no clarity about the conditions that have to be met before making such a declaration.

“The country’s diversity in its use of forests, Adivasi traditions, varying attitudes and approaches to forest governance by princely states gave a haphazard version of a forest under the IFA. Himalayan glaciers were considered forests, while many evergreen forests were either private or marked as grazing land,” explained forest governance researcher Sharachchandra Lele.

State governments used to have the right to de-reserve forest land, and states used this power to ‘divert’ forest land for agricultural or industrial purposes.  Between 1951 and 1980, 43,000 of forests—equivalent to the size of Haryana—were lost.

Even the government of the day was alarmed by the scale of the diversion. The Forest Conservation Act, enacted in 1980, was personally championed by Indira Gandhi. It meant to stem the loss of green cover by making it compulsory to take the permission of the Centre for forest diversion. That legislation did not define “forest,” either.

The Supreme Court’s December 1996 order sought to clear up the confusion by giving two definitions for “forest.” First, any land recorded as “forest” in government records would be considered a “forest,” irrespective of ownership. Secondly, any land could be considered a “deemed forest” if it satisfied the dictionary definition of forest as “a large area covered with trees and undergrowth.”

The second definition opened the floodgates. It gave the forest machinery control over private plantations and community lands. Eucalyptus and rubber plantations could be deemed forests. Wooded parks in cities would also fall under its scope. There was no ready-reckoner for how many trees an area deemed a forest ought to have. And if the determinant was really tree density, then areas such as the grasslands of central India that sustain the great Indian bustard, would fall outside the purview of forest conservation laws.

In 1996, the Supreme Court required state governments to form expert committees within a month to identify these areas. Incredibly, 24 years later, there is no pan-India consensus on the definition. Last year, when the issue came up before the Forest Advisory Committee, it decided that India was too vast and diverse to have a standard definition and reiterated that it should be left to states to identify forest areas.


he December 1996 order directed state governments to cease all non-forestry activities in forested areas. Northeast India, which supplied 60% of the country’s timber, came in for special treatment: a complete ban on tree-felling and transportation in the region was ordered. This led to mass protests.

Chief ministers of the Northeast states warned that a collapse of the lucrative timber market could lead to an uptick in insurgent activities.

A copy of the order was posted to Godavarman’s residence. Varma told me that his typically reserved father allowed himself a smile after reading it. It had the opposite effect on the interests that ran Gudalur’s timber business. At protest marches in Gudalur and Nilambur, local politicians made threatening speeches against the Kovilakam. The threat reached their front door in 1997. Varma was in Kozhikode when he received a frantic call from his wife. Five men had come to their home in Nilambur with two suitcases of cash. They wanted Godavarman to file an affidavit stating that he had no objections against the transportation of stocked timber.

In Varma’s recounting, his father, dressed in baniyan and mundu, went into the house and reemerged with a pistol. His wife and mother watched with fear from inside. Godavarman told the men: “There are six bullets in this gun, and I’ll shoot five of you with it. I’ll keep the last bullet for myself. I’m old and I have nothing to lose. You think of what you will lose.”


n the Godavarman case, the Supreme Court deployed a rarely-used legal device: continuing mandamus. A continuing mandamus allows the court to keep a matter open, issue directions to government authorities, and monitor implementation of its orders. Any issues related to forests could be heard under Godavarman—wildlife, encroachments, afforestation, infrastructure projects, mining. No matter was insignificant. In one case, the court imposed a fine of ₹1 crore on the Himachal Pradesh government for failing to prevent the painting of advertisements on rocks along the highway.

Some lawyers and legal researchers argue that using continuing mandamus opens the floodgates for judicial overreach and usurps the powers of the bureaucracy. In their review of the Godavarman case in 2007, a group of researchers led by Armin Rosencranz were unequivocal in their criticism: “…(the Court acts as) an administrator of law and of its own regulations. The writ of mandamus was applied in this case in a manner that breaches constitutional limits.”

Others argue that the court’s actions were well within the constitutional scheme. In his email to me, Salve referred to the court’s work as “a fine example of how an innovative court can fashion the law to find a way of protecting the environment using classical principles of judicial review.”

“Salve would personally print and distribute notices and court documents so that states could respond faster.”

an unnamed associate of Harish Salve

“Anyone exposed to the way the government functions knows that the Supreme Court is the only refuge to enforce the constitutional guarantees,” said P.K. Manohar, Godavarman’s advocate, who remained associated with the case for over two decades. “Even detractors cannot deny that these interventions have helped in slowing down the destruction of the forests.”

The Amicus


ontinuing mandamus wasn’t the only legal innovation in Godavarman. The court also gave a wider berth than ever to the amicus curiae. Over the years, Harish Salve would go on to bring hundreds of issues to the court’s notice. These would be in the form of ‘interlocutory applications’ in the ‘parent’ case.

These applications seeking urgent relief furthered the impression that the Godavaraman writ petition would remain open indefinitely.

An associate said that Salve quickly became the blue-eyed boy of the court during this time. “He thought the court process of distributing notices was slow. So, he would personally print and distribute notices and court documents—spending upwards of ₹70,000 on this —so that states could respond faster,” said the associate.

The keen interest that Salve took in the work was down to his own love for nature and wildlife. Salve’s conservation philosophy clearly aligned with the wildlife movement. Several advocates involved with the litigation shared Salve’s passion for the environment. Many were members of Legal Action for Wildlife and Environment (LAW-E), a forum of environmental lawyers, or Tigerlink, a network of tiger researchers and wildlife activists.

Environmental organisations had a direct line to the Supreme Court through these advocates, many of whom were in touch with Salve. “Serious environmental activism was taking shape around the case,” said Praveen Bhargav, a trustee in the Karnataka-based non-governmental organisation Wildlife First.

Take, for instance, the challenge against the operations of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited, a public sector enterprise that had been mining in the heart of a national park for over 30 years. It employed around 12,000 people at the time.

In May 2001, an interlocutory application was filed on behalf of KM Chinnappa, a Wildlife First trustee. In October 2002, the court ordered the closure of the Kudremukh mines by 2005. “I dread to imagine what would have happened to the case if the Godavarman route wasn’t available. The damage would have been irreparable,” says Bhargav.

In the confines of the tiled-roof house in Nilambur, Godavarman remained oblivious to what his petition had set off. Varma said: “When we got our computer, I set an online alert for any mention of my father. I would get alerts through the day.”

The Ministry


he court’s interventions were welcomed in the Delhi offices of the environment bureaucracy. It gave foresters their desired autonomy from a political system that didn’t prioritize conservation. 

“The executive had not done its job. Forests were being handed out to farmers and encroachers without concern during the election cycle. The Supreme Court saved India’s forests,” said V.K. Bahuguna, the Inspector General of Forests (IGF) at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) between 1997 and 2004.

However, the court also decided to keep a close eye on the MoEF. It directed the ministry to submit progress reports every two months. At the turn of the millennium, India’s green ministry had begun to tread with caution. “Environment ministers were scared to take a decision. They would instead ask us to file our proposals as an affidavit in the court. We could work without any political pressure,” says Bahuguna.

The Bench, which was meeting once a week, was also reaching breaking point and needed assistance. In 2002, it formed the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to investigate on behalf of the court. The composition of the first five-member CEC was three MoEF officials, wildlife activist Valmik Thapar and advocate and naturalist Mahendra Vyas. The CEC was to be a temporary measure until the MoEF could form an NEC, a National Empowered Committee. (18 years later, there is still no NEC.)

The CEC quickly became an influential component of the Godavarman case complex. The court would rely on its reports on the environmental impact of potential projects. If anyone wanted to divert forest land, they’d have to take the CEC’s permission.

Expectedly, it attracted criticism in the MoEF. A member told me that there was “significant heartburn” because junior Indian Forest Service officers in the CEC held more sway than senior officers in the Ministry. A serving forest officer told me it is a body of “vested interests.” A tribal activist suggested that it was “dangerously filled” with proponents of conservation through exclusion.

By now, the forest bench was mired in a tangle of applications and hearings. The questions remained complex but it had become used to giving quick answers. Often, an application seeking court intervention in one aspect would end up influencing forest governance elsewhere.

One of these, a petition to safeguard forests in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, would trigger the largest forest rights movement in the world.

The Protests


orrugated sheets lie by the wayside and household items are strewn about. Two elephants are guided by their mahouts in the destruction of the shanties. The photograph is from Assam’s Hangrabari village. It accompanied a story (“A Controversial Eviction Drive”) in a July 2002 issue of Frontline magazine.

Activists would later say that the image was symbolic of the judiciary-enabled brutality against tribal people and “encroachers.”

Between 2002 and 2004, elephants, earthmovers and the might of institutional machinery were used to evict an estimated 300,000 people from India’s forests. These drives were often marked by brutality. By 2004, eviction drives had reclaimed 1.52 lakh hectares of forest land, including those inhabited by tribal people.

All this sprang from an application related to habitat loss in the Andamans. It contended that encroachments by mainland Indians were threatening the forests and indigenous communities of the islands. In November 2001, Salve told the courts that encroachments were not restricted to the Andamans—it was a pan-India issue.

The Supreme Court passed an order restraining the Centre from regularizing lands. It also dispatched notices asking states and the MoEF about the steps they were taking to clear encroachments. On 3 May 2002, before the court could pronounce its orders based on the states’ responses, the MoEF issued a circular directing removal of encroachments by September. The circular stated that 12.5 lakh hectares of forests had been encroached upon by “powerful lobbies.” To appreciate the magnitude of this order, imagine if the government had decided that everyone in the state of Tripura had to be evicted within four months.

The “encroachers” included hundreds of thousands of tribal people. Many thought the circular was a gross misinterpretation of the Supreme Court’s orders. The Court had only sought details about plans to deal with encroachments and had not directed evictions.

Bahuguna, the senior bureaucrat who issued the circular, told me that the MoEF had no option but to compel states to act. “We’d been discussing the issue of encroachments for over a year. But states, who are responsible for evictions, were not doing anything. How long could we keep telling the Supreme Court that we are still planning things? They wanted action, not plans.”

A CEC report released a few months later would support the MoEF view. It attributed large-scale encroachments to the poor socio-economic status of tribes, the fear among forest officers to take action due to the Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Castes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and encroachers being “emboldened” by a lack of punitive action.

“The CEC had forest officers and wildlife people. There was no tribal voice. These people, who had the loudest voices in the court, were getting away with murder,” said Madhu Sarin, an independent researcher and member of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity. CSD was formed as an umbrella organisation of over 200 local tribal rights groups soon after the evictions began.

In 2003, a Jan Sunwai, a public meeting organized by CSD in Delhi saw over 1,000 tribal persons exchanging horror stories related to evictions: Sarin heard a story of a woman kicked out of her home while in labour. “The outrage,” she said, “fuelled mobilization.”

Timing was on their side. The general elections, a referendum on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, were scheduled for April-May 2004. Tribal assertion had a willing political audience, particularly with the Congress and Left parties. The Congress had included a law to recognize the rights of traditional forest dwellers as one of their election promises.

“There were lobbies everywhere. We even wrote to the home ministry to investigate the foreign funding of NGOs.”

VK Bahuguna, former environment ministry official

Pressure mounted and Vajpayee’s government started to relent. In February 2004, the MoEF was pressured to issue a quick-fix order: a circular promising to regularize “encroachments” of tribal lands occupied until 1993, as opposed to the 1980 cut-off of previous circulars.

Bahuguna, who also issued this 2004 circular, described what it was like for him then. “People started to blame me. There were lobbies everywhere. We even wrote to the home ministry to investigate the foreign funding of NGOs. Lobbies within the bureaucracy were upset because I had held them accountable for regularization or eviction. Then, there was ever-increasing political pressure due to the elections.”

The circular was eventually struck down by the forest bench. In arguments, Salve pointed out that it contradicted previous Supreme Court orders on regularization of forest land. After this, forest rights activists were convinced that ministry circulars could do little to guarantee long-term security. They needed a law.

The UPA came to power in 2004. Two and a half years later,  in December 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted to correct a “historical injustice.” The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, rather than the MoEF, was in-charge of implementing the new law. The FRA was immediately challenged in the court by wildlife and environment conservation organisations. At a World Wildlife Fund event in 2008, Salve called the legislation “an unabashed attempt to put politics over (the) environment.”

There has also been widespread criticism over the implementation of the Act. Even in 2020, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs remains underinformed, understaffed, and overstretched. At the grassroot level, the forest bureaucracy has the power to decide who is an “encroacher.”

The FRA also guarantees the right to live off minor forest produce like honey, fruits, firewood and medicinal plants. But the forest department has been accused of interfering with this by rejecting claims made by communities over forest produce and its sale. As of April 2020, of the 41 lakh applications for land titles, only 19 lakh had been regularised. Close to 18 lakh applications have been rejected.

“Yes. It is true that FRA implementation is nowhere near its potential,” said CR Bijoy, an independent researcher who has been involved in indigenous rights’ struggles. “But, at the same time, over 4 million hectares of land have been recognized. It is the world's largest tenurial recognition.”



n 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court ordered evictions of the claimants whose FRA applications had been rejected. Again, timing was on the tribal peoples’ side—a general election was due in a few months. As a result of pressure from tribal groups, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs filed an application requesting the court to modify its order. On 28 February, the court stayed its own orders for eviction.

This sort of divergence between the judiciary, legislature and executive is a legacy of the polarizing tendency of the Godavarman case. It is the same legacy that has cleaved groups into wildlifers and human rights types.

“The debate took many forms in the court. If it was an industrial project versus a forest, the court supported forests. If it was a state project against the forest, the state was often favoured. If it was conservationist versus tribal, the court sided with conservationists,” said Lele, the forest governance researcher.

At the peak of the Godavarman bloat, the bench was handling 60-70 cases per week. In October 2015, it finally split its caseload with the MoEF, state-level committees, the National Board of Wildlife, and the National Green Tribunal. Manohar, the advocate, said that enthusiasm for litigation has ebbed in recent years. “But what we’ve achieved is tremendous. Forests and wildlife have no vote and need support against unscientific populist measures. Let the next generation take over from Godavarman.”

Twenty-one years after approaching the court, T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad passed away at his home in Nilambur in 2016. An obituary in The Hindu called him the “architect of an omnibus forest protection case.” In his last years, his mind was far from his public-spirited writ petition. The legal matter that kept him occupied was the nearly five-decade long struggle to obtain compensation for Kovilakam members whose Gudalur lands were acquired. “He was very bitter and sad about this. He said even my grandchildren will not get justice in this,” said his son Varma.

In his beloved Gudalur, commercial timber felling has reduced since he petitioned the court. But there have been unintended consequences. Cultivators are wary of growing trees on their land, lest it be declared a forest and subject to state regulation.

Perhaps the grandest of all ironies is that the legal limbo means that FRA applications in connection with the estate lands have been kept in abeyance. Cultivators, including 1,200 Adivasi families, continue to live under the threat of evictions.

Godavarman’s petition leaves behind a complex legacy in the area, said K.T. Subramaniam, secretary of the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam and a member of the Mullukurumba community. “On the one hand, the petition helped save forests for tribals. Without it, perhaps, there would be only plantations around us. But, in the process, tribals have lost access to these forests itself.”

Stricter forest protection rules, many a result of orders issued as part of Godavarman, have seen the Kattunayakans lose access to hives within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. “They have to covertly collect honey now so that they are not harassed by forest guards,” said Subramaniam.

The Kattunayakans once collected honey with the permission of the trees. Presently, their livelihood hinges on the benevolence of the state. On the land where their ancestors were among the first inhabitants, they must now live tentatively.

Mohit M. Rao is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist who writes about environment, labour, politics and everything else in between.

A note on sources:

It doesn’t take long for a journalist covering the environment to run into the tentacles of the Godavarman writ. There is much legal analysis of the case but little written about the characters, motives and politics that have shaped it. 

This article has been made possible by the patience, time and effort of various individuals: Praveen Bhargav, Madhu Sarin, PK Manohar, N. Rajendra Varma, VK Bahuguna, Jacob Mathew, Shashi Shekhar, Stan Thekaekara, Sharachchandra Lele, CR Bijoy, Harish Salve, KT Subramaniam, Armin Rosencranz, Shankar Gopalakrishnan. In particular, I’d like to thank a person associated with the case since its start. Over a series of lengthy phone calls, he shared invaluable anecdotes and insights about the backroom negotiations of the initial years. He sought anonymity for he continues to occupy a position that is a direct legacy of this matter. 

Apart from innumerable court orders, I referred to over 70 reports, research papers, news articles and legal publications. To mention a few that were particularly helpful: “India’s Forests and the Judiciary: The Godavarman Story” by Sanjay Upadhyay, Shilpa Chohan and Priya Gupta; “Supreme Court on Forest Conservation” by Ritwick Dutta and Bhupender Yadav; Ajit Menon’s work on land and identity in Gudalur; the case analysis of Armin Rosencranz et al. To understand aspects of the Forest Rights Act, I relied on the works of Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Sharachchandra Lele, Madhu Sarin and CR Bijoy. I owe a debt to Down to Earth magazine, for its excellent reportage, over the years, of the ecological, political and community aspects of the case.