‘It opens up our forests to corporates’

Former Union minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh. DH File Photo

Former Union minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh tells Sagar Kulkarni of DH that he is troubled by the draft forest policy’s intent to bring in private enterprise into India’s forests through the PPP route. Excerpts from a conversation:

What is your view of the draft National Forest Policy 2018? What will be its impact if implemented in its current form?

Well, down the road, frankly, it is going to open the door for private involvement in our forests. The draft talks of (public-private partnership in) ‘degraded’ forest lands, but it is the thin end of the wedge. It may be degraded forest land, but it is still commons. There are still people living on those lands and using it as grazing land. Degraded forest land is not wasteland. The biggest danger is that in the name of afforestation, you are opening the doors for private involvement.

How will this impact India’s Paris climate commitment?

There is a lot of loose thinking around the Paris commitment that Indian forests will absorb three billion tonnes (of carbon dioxide). This is a bogus number. The exercise that I had got done when I was the minister showed that our forests would, with great difficulty, absorb around 6-7% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the next 15 to 20 years, we can expect around 10%, maybe 15%, but three billion tonnes?! That’s almost 40% of our GHG emissions. Completely unrealistic. That’s a number plucked out of the air, there’s no homework behind it.

I don’t know how this draft policy came about. This environment ministry operates behind a purdah. Mr Modi should fight against the burqa that envelops his environment ministry. They don't consult anybody. I don't expect much from them because you have a minister who believes that the Vedas had a theory superior to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

The focus on afforestation and plantation could change the character of the forests…

Compensatory Afforestation is a dangerous word, a completely bogus one. I tried my best to get rid of it. But, you know, I was a minister for only two years. Had I been there longer, I would have abolished the word. Because, what you are doing is you are destroying a natural forest and then you say you are going to compensate for it with the monoculture of some single species plantation. The dangers of this new forest policy is, firstly, opening up the forests to private enterprise and, secondly, monoculture plantation.

Some such experiments were done even in Karnataka?

Oh, yes. Harihar Polyfibres. But that was stopped. Shivaram Karanth led a big agitation. It is monoculture. You grow eucalyptus or bamboo. I went to Bhadra Forest Reserve, beautiful forest in Shivamogga. You go into the forest and suddenly you see large patches of eucalyptus right in the middle of the forest.

What about the rights of tribals and the Forest Rights Act of 2006 under this new policy?

 It does nothing to address the Forest Rights Act. It completely ignores the rights of tribals. I don't know whether the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has been consulted on this forest policy. I doubt very much that it has been. You cannot have a forest policy without bringing in the Forest Rights Act. This is a serious problem.

This government had an earlier draft forest policy in 2016 that it shelved. That too focused on other ecosystems such as grasslands, alpine meadows, water ecosystems and their conservation.

The 2016 draft was much better, because it included grasslands and different ecosystems. This does not even have any reference to that. I don't know why they did this frankly, what the motivation was. If the motivation was the Paris commitment on carbon sequestration through our forests, then it is a bogus commitment.

How does the new draft compare with the 1988 policy?

I don't think there was anything wrong with the 1988 Forest Policy. The only thing that the 1988 policy did not address was the Forest Rights Act, which came in 2006. I can understand the need for a new forest policy, because the old one was made in 1988, then we had the Forest Rights Act in 2006, and then this whole climate change issue became important. I can understand the need for updating the National Forest Policy. But the draft (the government has come up with) is the old (pre-1988) forest policy.

How do you think the problems with the draft policy can be addressed?

I think the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology and Environment & Forests will look into it. I spoke to Anand Sharma, the chairman of the committee, and I was told that the standing committee was taking it up for examination. He will be sending a set of questions to the ministry seeking explanation on the draft policy.

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