The tropical moist deciduous Sal Forest of Bangladesh that once extended from Dinajpur in the north to the extreme edge of Comilla, straddling the central region of Gazipur, Tangail, Mymensing and Dhaka spreading around 78199.80 hectars of land is almost gone now. Currently only 10% of the Sal Forests have Sal trees (scientific name Shorea robusta) with small patches in Dinajpur, Tangail, Mymensing and Dhaka districts. Among the existing patches of the Sal forest, the Sal Forest of Modhupur officially occupies around 18615.54 hectars. This forest extends from the Charaljani mouja to Rasulpur mouja from north to south and from Sholakuri mouja to Mahishmara mouja from east to west. The Government attempted to give the Forest different legal status as that of Reserve Forest and National Park under the Forest Act, 1927 and the Wild Life Protection Order, 1973 (now repealed) respectively.
The Government on 24 February, 1982 declared 8192.549 hectars of the forest land of Modhupur Sal Forest as National Park (falling within the moujas of Pirgachha, Arankhola, Chapaid, Gachhabari, Rasulpur and Bijoypur). Separately, notifications were issued under sections 4 and 6 of the Forest Act, 1927 on 2 February, 1956 and 19 July, 1984 purporting to declare 18376.74 hectars and 17307.498 hectars of the Forest land as reserve. Another notification dated 19 July, 1984 purported to declare 5361.275 hectars of the Forest as reserve. Against all these notifications, the Government could only declare 1022.292 hectars of Modhupur Sal forest as reserve until on 15 February, 2016 when the Government, most arbitrarily, declared 3700.850 hectars as also reserve forest. This area of 9,145 acres is in fact included in the 5361.275 hectars covered under notification dated 19 July, 1984 and have been calculated excluding the area under the command of air force (128.932 hectars) in Beribaidh moujas as firing range. This notification has been issued 32 years after the issuance of the extremely contentious notification dated 19 July, 1984 and is under legal challenge.
The notification dated 24 February, 1982 issued under section 23 (3) of the Wild Life Protection Order, 1973 (now repealed) was seen by the indigenous forest dwelling Garo people as an encroachment over their domain and an attempt to evict them from their homesteads further limiting their traditional rights over the forests. While the indigenous forest dwellers have been demanding settlements of their rights, the Government, instead issued a Memo No. 211 (4) dated 11 April, 1983 cancelling the settlements (pattani) that existed in favour of the forest dwellers. This gave cause to severe tension that turned bloody when the Government, during a military backed caretaker regime, attempted to implement the much debated project called the “National Park Development Project” (2000-2004 subsequently extended till 2009) in the Sal Forest. The National Park Development Project that proposed to construct walls on 1214.056 hectars of forest land of the National Park was seen by them as an attempt to wipe them out of the Forest. Opposition to the Project led to the death of two tribal protestors, Piren Slane killed by the local police on 3 January, 2004 and Cholesh Richil declared dead on 18 March, 2007 while at the custody of the army .
Despite its protected legal status, the Forest Department has admitted that the forest cover of Modhupur Sal Forest has come down from around 18615.54 hectars to 3642.170 hectars as lands within the forest have been indiscriminately allocated to powerful people for non-forest purposes and faulty commercial plantation. Today, vast tracts of the Modhupur Sal forest are under commercial banana and pineapple plantation where excessive use of various hormones and pesticides are causing irreparable damage to the soil of the forest and are creating serious threats towards its regeneration.
A Writ Petition No. 1834 of 2010 has been filed with the High Court division specifically challenging the inactions, misdeeds, and arbitrary projects/ notifications of the Government and the Forest Department having bearing on the commercialization of the Forest and denial of the rights of the forest dwellers. The petitioners pleaded alternative management under Section 28 (Village Forests) of the Forest Act, 1927 that has strong elements of community forest management. On 16th March, 2010 the Court required all government agencies to show cause as to why they shall not be directed to: a) Correctly identify the borders of the Modhupur Sal Forest; b) Frame rules on village forestry as required under Section 28 of the Forest Act 1927 and ensure regeneration of the Modhupur Sal Forest through protection and enrichment plantation with indigenous species and with directed participation of the forest dependent people is envisaged in Section 28 of the Forest Act, 1927; c) Settle the rights of the member of the Garo and Kontch community who are indigenous forest dwellers of the Modhupur Sal Forest in accordance with section 92 of the SAT and following sections 6-19 of the Forest Act, 1927; d) Remove all unauthorized and illegal industrial/commercial entitles from the Modhupur Sal Forest; e) Stop commercial Banana/Pineapple plantation (without affecting the traditional cultivation of the tribal People) and other commercial plantations in the Modhupur Sal Forest; f) In the case of areas covered under social forestry agreements, undertake appropriate measures to gradually regenerate native forest in the said areas after the expiry of the existing agreements and/or such other further order or orders passed as to this Court may seem fit and proper.
Subsequently, on 19 January, 2012, the Court directed the Ministry of Environment and Forest to submit before the Court a comprehensive dossier with details of all forest dependent people and suggest measures on how to protect the Forest, its trees and the forest dependent people. As the Government didn’t respond to the show causes notices of the Court and went ahead in issuing the notification dated 31 March, 2016 declaring 3700.878 hectars of Forest land as reserve, once again without settling people’s rights, another notice was issued on the government agencies by the Court on 23 August, 2017 to show cause as to why this notification shall not be declared illegal and shall not be set aside.