Bringing industry, agro into forests

Some significant developments have been taking place on the forestry front in recent years. First came the heartening news, though questioned by many, that India's forest cover has increased by 1% (or about 8,000 sq km) between the two Forest Survey of India's reports of 2015 and 2017. Then, the much-awaited draft Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) rules, 2018, which would unleash a whopping Rs 48,000 crore towards afforestation and other conservation-related works, was put in the public domain before its finalisation. And, finally, a few days back, the ministry unveiled yet again a draft Forest Policy, 2018, which was earlier hastily withdrawn after drawing adverse criticism from many quarters.

Before these, a new Wildlife Protection Action Plan was also announced, attempting to take wildlife conservation programmes beyond protected areas. All these initiatives give new confidence and direction to policy-makers' perpetual struggle, supported mostly by lip service, for not only moving towards the country's environmental goals and commitments but also to achieve some balance between development and conservation, a difficult, though not unattainable, task.

The new policy has retained the chief objective of bringing one-third of the country under forest cover and has rightly emphasised on sustainable forest management by treating forests as eco-service and livelihood providers, and not merely producers of wood and other goods. Linkage of Gram Panchayats with forest committees, participation of the real stakeholders tribals and forest-dwellers in planning and management, PPP model in degraded forests and outside forests to increase tree cover, forest certification, agro forestry support, etc., are some of the other salient points. It has also emphasised strict control on diversion of forests, without elaborating how the strict control will be enforced given that India has lost 21,000 sq km of good forests. It is almost a given that, faced with continuous demand on forests, including even tiger conservation and rich bio-diversity areas, for highways, railways, river-linking projects, etc., the country will keep losing natural forests (as compensatory afforestation can never recreate these), unless the policy is backed by stricter laws and a non-negotiable approach to protecting forest areas.

Agro-forestry, PPP

Since the policy lays great emphasis on the above two strategies, namely agro-forestry and public private partnership, a closer analysis of the two apparently laudable objectives for encouraging trees outside forests is necessary.

One important component of agro-forestry in the policy document is the provision for subsidy and MSP (minimum support price) support for it on the lines of agricultural produce. However, these are likely to only help the big and absentee farmers as the small and marginal farmers hardly have spare land to undertake agro-forestry. So, an already heavily subsidised class who pay no taxes will be the prime beneficiary. This will need to be addressed. Moreover, only dry degraded agriculture and fallow land with private individuals can be targeted for block plantations as good agricultural lands cannot be diverted for it. But we have no models to suit different agroclimatic zones of the country.

On the other hand, industry, a vital component of the proposed PPP model, is not interested in degraded forest (less than 10% cover). In any case, forest land cannot be leased out to industry as per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which might have to be tweaked - with the accompanying risk of weakening it - to accommodate the above policy. But this is likely to raise serious objections from NGOs and some opposition political parties who might see it as yet another attempt to benefit crony capitalism. Also, CSR funds for forestry is not at all preferred by corporates as they want to spend it on more visible projects. So, governments will have to be the largest fund providers and it is about time to unlock CAMPA, which is hanging fire for over two decades. The government will also have to raise funding to the sector to at least 2% of its budget because that is the estimated contribution of the sector to the GDP, not taking into account the eco-system services benefits in economic terms.

What are the short and long-term impacts of these initiatives? Will all of these be able to protect our already threatened wildlife and conserve depleting forests, particularly our good forests which have seen steady decline, notwithstanding the recent reported increase in overall forest area? Will we be able to reach anywhere near the policy goal of bringing one-third of India under forest cover? Will it help in reducing the ever increasing and alarming man-animal conflict? Will the proposed agro-forestry help in achieving the government's target of doubling farmers' incomes by 2022? And, above all, will India be able to honour its Paris climate agreement commitments? The proposed policy will have to be accompanied by an appropriate strategy to obtain at least a few positive answers to these questions.

(The writer is former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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