Rhetoric and reality of forest policy

India has a unique place in the management of forest resources in the world. It has a history of forest policies in practice since over 200 years. The colonial rulers introduced the policy to exploit the forests for commercial purposes in 1800, which continued till 1952.

After Independence, the Government of India drafted a new forest policy in 1952, which laid emphasis on extraction of forest resource and establishing monoculture plantation, with the commercial objective of earning the maximum revenue. Following in the footsteps of the colonial rulers, the policy ignored the interests of ecology and forest dwellers. Unsustainable forest extraction led to drastic reduction in the tree-cover and heightened conflict with forest dwellers over the use of forest resources.

The launch of 'Chipko' or 'hug the trees' grassroots movement in the Himalayas in the early 1970s and 'Appiko' in South India in the 1980s built up the pressure on the government to adopt a new forest policy in 1988.

Responding to the crisis of dwindling forest resources, the new policy shifted the axis from commercial exploitation to the ecological functions of the forest. It said, "the principal aim of the forest policy must be to ensure environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance, including atmospheric equilibrium which is vital for sustenance of all life forms. The derivation of direct economic benefit must be subordinated to this principal aim."

Obviously, it was not only proactive but envisioned the arrival of climate change and emphasised the need to conserve forests for sustenance of wildlife and all other life forms.

Over the past three decades, successive governments have reiterated their commitment to implement this policy but a reality check indicates the disastrous consequences due to the derailment of the policy at various levels, with the support of the governments of the day and politicians.

One of the objectives was to conserve the natural old growth forests that host remarkable biodiversity and genetic wealth. In the period 1980 to 2016, a total of nine lakh hectares of forest lands have been diverted to non-forest activities by the central government.

An RTI filed with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) revealed that on an average, 135 hectares of forest land is diverted legally for development projects like river valley, coal mines or power lines. What's more, the forests in the remote hill regions, especially the catchment forests that are the origin of rivers, is sacrificed, as is being done in the Yettinahole river diversion project.

These shocking figures indicate the failure of MoEFCC, the custodian of forests, to discharge its duties and responsibilities in conserving natural forests.

Another objective was to check soil erosion and denuding in the catchment areas of rivers to mitigate floods and droughts. However, in reality, the country is losing 5,334 million tonnes of topsoil every year, as Parliament was informed. Similarly, 25% of the country's geographical area is undergoing desertification.

The policy set the goal for covering one-third of total land area of the country under forest cover, and in the hills and mountain ranges, the aim is to maintain two-third areas under tree cover to maintain ecological
stability. The biennial State of the Forest Report 2017 concluded that the country has 21.53% under tree cover, which is increasing marginally. The ground reality is very different. These figures include green areas like monoculture plantations that cannot be categorised as forests. An independent study concluded that the area of plantations doubled between 1995 and 2005, from 1,46,200 sqkm to 3,00,280 sqkm.

In the hill regions of the Western Ghats, instead of the mandatory 66% tree cover, only 10% remains, according to ecologist Madhav Gadgil. Similarly, the forest cover in the Himalayas is also far less than the goal set in the forest policy.

This phenomenon of commercialisation of forests is omnipresent in all afforestation programmes. The colonial mindset of exploiting forests to earn revenue is the foundation of forest management, ignoring the long-term objective of ecological sustenance.

Despite this brazen violation, the most intriguing fact is the presence of abundance of wildlife in the natural forests. The credit goes to the tribal populations that play a dominant role in preserving the natural forests that provide them livelihood.

These facts provide enough evidence of how the broader ecological goals of the policy are violated at every level of forest management, ignoring the negative implications on water, food and ecological sustenance of all forms of life.

The recurring droughts and water stress and abnormally high temperatures are indicators of stress caused by the disappearance of forests. A concrete and sincere action and commitment from our political leaders, bureaucracy and common people is the only way to save the remaining forests.

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