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India’s forest policy: Act and Issues with New draft

GS Paper 2:

  • Government policies and Governance

GS Paper 3:

  • Environment 
  • India’s Forest Policy was last revised in 1988. The new draft Forest Policy 2018, returns to the state-managed forestry of the 1950s, but with a neoliberal twist.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has finalised the first draftof the comprehensive amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) and sent to states for consultation.
  • The Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) is the backbone of forest governance in India.

Background:

  • India’s diverse forests support the livelihoods of 250 million people, providing them firewood, fodder, bamboo, beedi leaves and many other products. The timber currently benefits the state treasury.
  • Forests also regulate stream flows and sediment, benefitting downstream communities.
  • Finally, they provide global benefits of biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
  • However, these multiple goods and services, flowing to different beneficiaries, cannot be simultaneously maximised.

Forest policy, therefore, focusses on:

  • Which benefits (and beneficiaries) to prioritise, where and through what process.
  • Decide when and through what process to allow diversion of forest land for “non-forest” activities such as dam building, mining and agriculture.

Evolution of forest policy:

Forest policy in colonial India:

  • It focussed on maximising products and revenues for the state through the imperial forest department as sole owner, protector and manager of the forest estate.
  • Unfortunately, post-Independence policy continued this statist approach. Forests were seen as sources of raw material for industry and local communities were simply treated as labour.

Indian Forest Act, 1927:

  • The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was largely based on previous Indian Forest Acts implemented under the British. The most famous one was the Indian Forest Act of 1878.
  • Both the 1878 act and the 1927 one sought to consolidate and reservethe areas having forest cover, or significant wildlife, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.
  • Britishers impose Indian Forest Act, 1927to take over Indian forests, use them to produce timber, while curtailing and extinguishing rights of millions.
  • The Act gave the Government and Forest Department the power to create Reserved Forests, and the right to use Reserved Forestsfor Government use alone.
  • It also defines the procedure to be followedfor declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest or a Village Forest.
  • It defines what a forest offence is, what are the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act.

The 1988 Forest Policy:

  • In a paradigm shift, the 1988 Forest Policy recognised the multiple roles of forests and prioritised environmental stability over revenue maximisation.
  • It also acknowledged that the needs of forest-dependent communities must be the “first charge” on forest produce.
  • Equally important, the policy emphasised people’s involvement in protecting and regenerating forests, thus formally recognising the limitations of state-managed forestry.

Post-1988 experience:

Joint forest management (JFM) was initiated in the 1990s to implement the concept of people’s involvement.
But what began with great expectations eventually ended up being fake.

  • Foresters created thousands of village forest committees but severely limited their autonomy and jurisdictions.
  • Donor money was spent on plantations but activities were stopped once funds ran out.
  • “People’s participation” by executive order was too weak and lopsided a concept. Instead what was required was substantive devolution of control over forests.

The 1990s also saw the Supreme Court getting involved in forest governance. To regulate forest diversions, it introduced a high ‘net present value’ (NPV) charge on the lands diverted.
But the court refused to assign any role to local communities affected by such diversion, not even a share in the NPV received.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006:

It created a historic opportunity for devolution.

  • Its community forest resource provisions gave communities rights to both access and manage forests. Today, thousands of villages in Maharashtra and Odisha have received these rights, and hundreds have begun to exercise them.
  • The FRA democratised the diversion process by requiring community concurrence for forest diversion once community forest rights are recognised.
  • The Adivasis of Niyamgiri in Odisha exercised this provision to prevent bauxite mining in their sacred hill tracts.

India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 released by MoEFCC:

  • India is ranked 10thin the world, with 4% of land area under forest and tree cover, even though it accounts for 2.4 % of the world surface area and sustains the needs of 17 % of human and 18 % livestock population.
  • The total forest and tree cover are 39 per centof the geographical area of the country.
  • However, the critical side is, only 2.99% of India’s geographic areais classified as very dense forest.
  • The rest of the green cover of a total of 21.54% is nearly equally divided into open and moderately dense forest, according to theState of Forest Report 2017.

Concerns with regard to the present Draft Bill:

  • The draft Bill reinforces the idea of bureaucratic control of forests, providing immunity for actions such as use of firearms by personnel to prevent an offence.
  • The hard-line policing approach is reflected in the emphasis on creating infrastructure to detain and transport the accused.
  • To penalise entire communities through denial of access to forests for offences by individuals.
  • Such provisions invariably affect poor inhabitants, and run counter to the empowering and egalitarian goals that produced the Forest Rights Act.
  • For decades now, the Forest Department has resisted independent scientific evaluation of forest health and biodiversity conservation outcomes.
  • In parallel, environmental policy has weakened public scrutiny of decisions on diversion of forests for destructive activities such as mining and large dam construction.
  • Impact assessment reports have mostly been reduced to a farce, and the public hearings process has been
  • The exclusion of ‘village forestry’ from the preview of Forest Right Act (forest official supersedes Gram Sabha) is legally contradictory and would add confusion on the ground.
  • The draft mentions that the state governments could take away the rights of the forest dwellers if the government feels it is not in line with “conservation of the proposed reserved forest” by payment to the people impacted or by the grant of land.
  • India’s forests play a key role in moderating the lives of not just the adivasis and other traditional dwellers, but everyone in the subcontinent, through their impact on the climate and monsoons. Their health can be improved only through collaboration.

The 2018 Forest Policy draft:

  • Highlighting the decline in forest productivity, it identifies “production forestry” and plantations as the “new thrust area”.
  • Forest development corporations are to be the institutional vehicle. They will now enter into public-private partnerships (PPPs) to bring corporate investment into forest lands.

Issue:

  • In the past, production forestry led to replacing natural oak forests with pine monocultures in the Himalayas, natural sal forests with teak plantations in central India, and wet evergreen forests with eucalyptus and acacia in the Western Ghats. All this has decimated diversity, dried up streams and undermined local livelihoods.
  • PPPs will entail more such destruction, with even the profits ending up in corporate hands.
  • There is little about decentralised governance in the draft policy though the term “community participation” is use, but not seriously.
  • The draft talks of “ensuring synergy” between gram sabhas and JFM committees, when the need is to replace JFM committees with statutorily empowered gram sabhas, and revamp the colonial-era Indian Forest Act by incorporating FRA provisions.

Suggestions for Improvement:

  • The government needs to launch a process of consultation, beginning with the State governments to ensure that a progressive law is adopted by all States, including those that have their own versions of the existing Act.
  • The Centre must hear the voice of all stakeholders and communities, including independent scientific experts.
  • The finalising law should aim to reduce conflictsincentivise tribalsand stop diversion for non-forest uses.
  • This can be achieved by recognising all suitable landscapes as forestsand insulating them from commercial exploitation.

Conclusion:

  • As per the latest FAO reportIndiais placed 8th in the list of Top Ten nations reporting the greatest annual net gain in forest area.
  • Forests play a vital role in water conservationand improve the water regime in the area.
  • A new law enacted should make a departure and be aimed to expand India’s forests, and ensure the well-being of traditional forest-dwellersand biodiversity in these landscapes.
  • The Government has recently enacted a Bill in the Parliament for taking out bamboo from the tree category, where it is grown outside forest areas.
  • This will encourage people to grow bamboo on private lands, which will be helpful in increasing the livelihood opportunitiesfor farmers and also enhance the green cover and carbon stock of the country.
  • The need is for a paradigm that encourages community-led, scientifically validated conservation.

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