Drafting forest policy sans forest dwellers

The selective process shows the parochial mindset of both the government and the forest bureaucracy.

India is one of the few countries in the world that have a long history of organised forest management with three national forest policies.

The first one was in 1894 during the British era and the second was in 1952. Both these were set to maximise the revenue with the sole objective of commercial extraction of forest resources. The third forest policy enacted in 1988 laid the foundation for preservation, restoration of ecological balance and involvement of forest dwellers, especially women, in forest conservation.

After 27 years, the central government, under the stewardship of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has initiated steps to review and draft fourth Forest Policy for the county. This task has been assigned to the Bhopal based Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), a wing of the ministry. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is providing financial and technical assistance towards this objective.

With the changing times, there is an acute need to overhaul the forest policy to accommodate the wide spectrum of groups that has stake in forest resources. Over the last two decades, India has adopted international conventions on biodiversity and climate change that has wide ranging implications on forests.

Similarly, the passing of laws like Forest Right Act and other laws related to environment protection and wild life has influenced the way forests are managed.In accordance with  changing scenario the new forest policy needs to address society’s needs to attain sustainable development goals, while balancing different forest dependent groups that cut across diverse sectors of growing economy.

As stated by UNDP, “A bottom-up, participatory, multi-stakeholder process is a powerful way to develop a national forest policy. It helps to build a sense of joint ownership and ensure its relevance in times of political change”.

Ironically, the process of drafting new forest policy has jettisoned these basic principles of participatory approach. The IIFM has set the target of producing the draft policy document in eight months. Trying to chase the deadline, it has conducted six regional workshops with so called stakeholders.

According to the institute, the regional consultation held in Haryana was “attended by 55 participants from forest department, including senior retired forest officials, NGOs, wood-based industries, progressive farmers, agricultural universities  and  progressive farmers”. This group is representing huge areas of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Ironically, absence of forest dwelling tribal community, or women from these forest rich areas like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh was not an issue. In another regional consultation in Bengaluru, the area covered was six states covering Western Ghats. Almost 99 per cent of participants were from forest department.

With a landmass of 2 per cent of world surface, India is home to 5 per cent of plant and animal wealth. Over 400 million people depend on forest resources for their livelihood. Many of them collect food from natural forests as well as earn cash from non-timber forest produce.

Having lived for centuries in the midst of forests, they have intimate knowledge of forests around them. Nevertheless, not a single forest dweller has been part of drafting new forest policy that has serious implication on their lives.

Community participation

The IIFM claims to have plans to “outsource” the community participation. However, what is surprising is that the representatives of wood based-industries and the industrial sectors are not only aware about the process, but are actively participating to provide their inputs. Obviously, the IIFM has been very selective in inviting the participants.

Why the government is in a hurry to bring out a new forest policy? A senior forest officer who wants to remain anonymous has said “this exercise should be seen in the context of  government’s move to open up the degraded forests to industry. There is an urgent need to reorient the forest policy to facilitate this process ”.

Confirming this, Ritwick Dutta a lawyer in Supreme Court says, “the existing policy prohi-bits diversions of forest land in ecologically fragile regions like Himalayas, Western Ghats and the tribal belt in central India.

Diversion cases are challenged before the National Green Tribunal; the MOEFCC has no valid reasons for violating the existing forest policy. To overcome this adverse situation, the Centre has evolved a strategy to change the policy to benefit the development lobby”.

The selective process of drafting of new forest policy without the involvement of forest dwellers shows the parochial mindset of both the government and the forest bureaucracy in managing the dwindling forest resources of the country.

The conflicts over forest resources have created a civil war in tribal regions in central India leading to Maoist resurgence. In this period of crisis, it is essential to evolve a forest policy that reduces these conflicts and aims and maintaining ecological security for the present and future generations.

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