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TN Godavarman: the man behind India's biggest environment court case is no more

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

It took me less than six months of being introduced to environmental policy to know one Supreme Court case that beat all others: TN Godavarman Thirumalpad versus Union of India and others. Writ Petition (Civil) 202 of 1995.

On 1 June, four days before World Environment Day, the man who lent his name to the most iconic environment case in the country, passed away.

Thirumalpad was 86 years old and he lived in Nilambur, Malappuram district, Kerala. He succumbed to a cardiac arrest.

Known commonly as the Godavarman Case, the petition was initially filed by Thirumalpad, against timber logging, in Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills.

His obituary is as much about himself as it is about his case.

The petition and subsequent case

His petition came into limelight because the Supreme Court used it to fill loopholes in India's entire forest policy - including the embarrassing fact that the law hadn't even defined a "forest".

The court said the dictionary definition would apply. Earlier, just the land type was defined as 'forest', with a ridiculous loophole that trees could still be cut as long as the land type didn't change.

The case also led to a formula to calculate the monetary value of a forest. This is now paid by any industry wanting forest land, plus cost of compensatory afforestation. From this, almost Rs 42,000 crore have been accumulated in, a Supreme Court-monitored escrow account.

To achieve all this, the court made the case a "continuing mandamus". This means that the case will never close and the court will pass orders and monitor their implementation - a first in Indian legal history.

It even set up a special "forest bench" that met every Friday at 2 pm for the better part of the last two decades. For about ten years, the Chief Justice of India led the bench.

Through 119 sittings, the bench passed 18 orders, eventually reinterpreting the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Thirumalpad's limited role

This, of course, doesn't mean that Thirumalpad actually turned up at the court and fought the entire case. Being a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), it was eventually taken up by the court. Although he has been credited for the case, even being called the 'father of India's environmental jurisprudence' (Telegraph Calcutta's headline), Thirumalpad's role in the case was quite limited.

His petition was limited to the deforestation in Gudalur. Thirumalpad belonged to an erstwhile royal family - the Nilambur Kovilakam - and the land in question belonged to them before the state took over. Thirumalpad was understandably miffed about the forest violations.

For all the fame he got, Thirumalpad's original cause gained nothing. The deforestation in Gudalur remains unaddressed in a district court. The SC sent the case back for adjudication, says environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who has also written a book on the case.

"He never got the relief he was seeking in the Supreme Court," Dutta says.

In an earlier interview to Down to Earth, Thirumalpad said he was surprised at the "sweep of the judgement."

Speaking a year ago to a Telegraph Calcutta reporter, he recounted the days before the judgement: "The mafia tried to dissuade me. They offered me money. I told them 'OK, bring it but only four of you should come. I have a revolver with five bullets in it. I will kill all four of you, then shoot myself and leave a message for my wife to burn me in that currency".

Interestingly, that Thirumalpad's case made history, is itself said to be a fluke of history. In 1996, when some Supreme Court judges were touring Arunachal Pradesh, they noticed indiscriminate deforestation. Upon returning to Delhi, they asked the SC registrar for a list of cases dealing with forests, in which they could pass an order banning tree felling. The registrar said there were two - the Godavarman case and another known as the Environment Awareness Forum case.

By a matter of chance, the judges passed orders in the former, and Thirumalpad's name was forever etched in India's environmental history.

Breach of constitutional boundaries

The Supreme Court has been criticised for the 'continuing mandamus'. A paper by the legal scholar Armin Rosencranz termed it "breach of constitutional boundaries".

Even so, the Court never ensured that it was fully implemented. A 1998 order that 10% of all forests in the Northeast be declared biodiversity reserves hasn't been implemented even now, said Joy Dasgupta, an independent consultant working on forest issues in Arunachal Pradesh.

The state, which made the Thirumalpad case what it is, has allowed massive deforestation for a 2000-km highway cutting through it.

"If the orders were followed in letter and spirit, we would have been much better off now. Unfortunately the forest departments too did not pick up on the case and make it a true revolution", Dasgupta said.

Even the forest bench doesn't meet as frequently anymore. The last order passed in the case was back in March 2014.

Thirumalpad and his quiet life

To his credit, as someone whose name is synonymous with Indian forest jurisprudence, Thirumalpad sought no fame. He led a quiet life back in his hometown. When he passed away, Thirumalpad was the President of the Nilambur Reading and Recreation Club.

Few photographs exist outside his family, and not many from the forest circles appear to have kept in touch. When contacted, one eminent historian, who has written books on India's environmental history, refused to offer any comment. Another eminent ecologist could not remember the case or its petitioner.

When a public interest litigation is filed, in lawyer lingo, the petitioner is said to "fade away" as the court takes up the matter on its own in public interest. How ironical.

With inputs from Saurav Datta

First published: 6 June 2016, 5:04 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.