Draft forest policy: missing the woods

The new forest policy was long overdue, as the 1988 forest policy has already completed three decades of its existence. The challenge of resolving the conflict over conserving forests or sacrificing them at the altar of mega development projects poses a constant dilemma, faced in the context of achieving faster economic growth.

The central government, under the stewardship of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released the new draft forest policy document in March this year. Written by the Forest Policy Division, it has many loopholes and raises fundamental issues of governance of the most fragile resource.

The new forest policy was long overdue, as the 1988 forest policy has already completed three decades of its existence. The challenge of resolving the conflict over conserving forests or sacrificing them at the altar of mega development projects poses a constant dilemma, faced in the context of achieving faster economic growth.

India has ratified international conventions of biodiversity and climate change that necessitates the incorporation of these ideas into our national policies, affecting forest governance. At the national level, the Forest Rights Act, 2006, has enormous implications on the use and access of forests for almost 30 million forest-dependent people.

The rationale for drafting a new forest policy is thus based on these broader changes in the national and international scenario since 1988. Nevertheless, the process of drafting this policy and its real motive has raised serious apprehensions among civil society organisations working on forestry issues.

Following in the footsteps of the 1988 policy, the objectives of this draft reaffirm commitment to "safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of present and future generations based on sustainable management of forests for the flow of ecosystem services". Similarly, the goals of increasing the overall forest cover to one-third the land area in the plains and two-thirds in mountain regions is ideal.

However, it becomes scary and contradictory as the strategy to realise these policies is set out. It envisions enhancing quality and productivity of natural forests. The forests that are dense and naturally grown are host to rich biodiversity, performing innumerable ecosystem functions. Very little of these natural forestry ecosystems are left intact and any intervention to 'enhance' is bound to have a negative impact.

The most controversial aspect of the draft forest policy is its intention "to raise plantations of commercial species" and making way for the PPP (public-private partnership) model in afforestation programmes. Obviously, this is a major shift to allow the corporate sector to enter the forest sector.

The policy advocates are using REED (reduced emission from deforestation and degradation) as a tool for forest-based climate mitigation in anticipation of a huge influx of funding from developed nations. However, experience has shown that while implementing REED, the forest-dwelling communities have been marginalised to establish commercial monoculture plantations.

These strategies are ecologically flawed and have negative implications for the forest-dwelling communities. In essence, the strategy adopted in the draft policy is regressive, reverting back to the colonial era motivation towards exploiting fragile forest resources for commercial purposes.

The draft has failed to incorporate the essential elements of the Convention on Biological Diversity as well as the spirit of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Under the Act, the forest-dwelling communities have been accorded rights over forest resources, not only access to non-timber forest produce but also ownership rights.

The draft calls for setting up of an extra-powerful institution called National Board of Forestry to "facilitate inter-sectoral convergence, simplification of procedures and conflict resolution."

Though this looks simple, read between the lines: this is a ploy to vest the legal and administrative powers of forest governance in a single, centralised authority that makes it easier to divert forests, bypassing the interventions of the Central Empowered Committee on forests set up by the Supreme Court or the orders of the National Green Tribunal that are not palatable to the present government.

We need to look back at the fiasco of the draft forest policy of 2015, when the NDA government assigned Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, to draft the national forest policy.

The draft was released after a series of consultations with forest officials. Shockingly, however, the MoEFCC backtracked and the draft was withdrawn unceremoniously, saying that it is not a policy document but just a 'study'. Admitting that it lacked public participation, the government said, "multiple stakeholders and state government is not consulted (sic) and a new draft policy will be put into public domain."

Surprisingly, the present draft, too, has come out without even a single stakeholder being consulted, leave alone the millions of tribals who live in the forests. Neither have the state governments been consulted. The spirit of federalism itself is under question!

Shockingly, not a single state government has raised this issue, even those states that are ruled by opposition parties. This is the most glaring omission, as it has jettisoned the principles of the democratic process in evolving a policy on forests that has ramifications on the survival of the present and future generations. It has missed an opportunity to address the challenges faced in the forestry sector.

The roadmap envisaged to implement this draft policy is bound to have negative consequences on ecological security and empowerment of people.

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