After putting out a draft forest policy, the government suddenly backtracked in panic. If it had got through, it would have seen more areas getting commercialized, adversely affecting ecology
By Ramesh Menon
In a bid to bring one-third of India under forests and revive degraded areas that are collapsing with immense biotic pressure, the NDA government floated a draft national forest policy in mid-June and asked for comments from the public and stakeholders by June 30. It had proposed to levy a green tax to supplement the resources and also give away forest land to the private sector to grow plantations that would help industry.
However, just ten days after AK Mohanty, deputy inspector general of forests (forest policy division) issued an office memorandum inviting comments from the public and stakeholders on the new draft forest policy that was also put up on its website, the environment ministry in a surprising somersault suddenly announced that it was just a study and not the forest policy! According to informed sources, this is because there was a lot of opposition to the draft which allows private companies to carry out industrial plantations in forests among many other things. These are not in the interests of dwindling forests or the protection of forest rights of those who live off forest produce. With crucial state elections coming up next year, the government does not want to be seen pandering to the industry which this draft was proposing to do.
The office memorandum dated June 16 (File No 1-1/2012-FP (Vol.@) clearly states: “Ministry is in the process of revising the present national foreign policy 1988. A draft national forest policy in this regard has been prepared and is enclosed. All stakeholders are requested to send their comments if any by June 30, 2012.”
Now, a new document of the environment ministry says that what was put on the website was just a study of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. Much before this somersault, India Legal had spoken to the Institute officials and they said that they had researched for many months visiting 100 villages to create this draft. However, S Negi, director-general, forests, now says that the study is only one of the inputs for the proposed forest policy. He has not indicated when it will be out.
The draft talks of protection and management of other ecosystems like alpine meadows, grasslands, deserts, marine and coastal areas. Dr GA Kinhal, Director, IIFM, told India Legal: “We have shifted the focus from forests to landscapes, from canopy cover to healthy eco-systems and from joint forest management to community forest management. We want to improve the health and vitality of forest eco-systems to ensure ecological security and conserve biological diversity.”
This draft was expected to guide the complex management of forests of India in the next few decades. The last policy was made 28 years ago. At present, India has a forest cover of only 24.16 percent, according to the India State of Forest Report released in December 2015.
What is disturbing is that while this “study” talks of ensuring larger areas under forests, it does away with a similar target for hill and mountainous regions to maintain two-thirds of the geographical area under forest cover. It is probably a window created to execute commercial operations.
Clearly, the Modi government wants to push private investment in the forestry sector. In order to ensure larger production of wood through farm forestry, the policy aims to create contracts between industry and farmers. “Large-scale expansion of agro-forestry and farm forestry should be encouraged through commensurate incentives and operational support systems such as lowering the input costs and enabling access to reasonably priced quality planting material,” the draft said.
States that showed improvement in their forest cover last year were: Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. The states where it substantially worsened were: Mizoram, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
Haryana, which has a very poor forest cover, may find that most of its shrub forests will not get the protection it needs under the new policy as it does not recognize it as forests. Vast tracts in the Aravalis which are over 11,500 hectares will then be converted for commercial use as the pressure builds up from the industry to do so.
The “study” said that there was a need for exercising restraint on how forest land was being diverted for non-forestry purposes like mining, quarrying, dams, roads and other linear infrastructure. One way was to use state-of-the-art technology that would minimize pollution and damage, it said. Government records indicate that around 1.21 million hectares of forest land had been diverted since the eighties to make way for as many as 23,784 non-forestry proposals. Most of them were mining and industrial projects. Of them, around 4,00,000 hectares were in Madhya Pradesh and over 1,00,000 hectares were in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
For many years, there was a grouse that concerns of forest dwellers and local communities were overlooked. This policy mentions that there is a need to develop responsible ecotourism models that focus on conservation which would also supplement livelihood needs of local communities.
While the “study” said that gram sabhas or village councils can be roped in to take over management of forests, their plans would have to be vetted by the forest department. The new policy does not seem to agree with the Forest Rights Act promulgated in 2006 which empowered tribals and forest dwellers to take back the land that the forest department had taken over from them. The Act had given communities complete management control over their lands with very little role for the forest department to play.
Ajay Kumar Saxena, program manager, forestry, Centre for Science and Environment says that this draft did not address new challenges like climate change but misses critical issues like forest rights, joint forest management and protecting interests of farmers practicing farm forestry. “It does not discuss issues of compensatory afforestation and it surprisingly does away with the requirement of having two-thirds of area in mountain and hill regions under forests. This is a complete deviation from the 1988 forest policy. It set an ambitious target of increasing forest carbon stock by one-third of the existing stock by the end of next decade which is quite unachievable and far more ambitious than forest carbon goals submitted by India to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ” Saxena added.
If it had gone through, this idea of promoting commercial plantations on forest land would have harmed the interests of millions of farmers who are practicing farm forestry.