Missing the woods for trees

Jungle Raj: The draft new forest policy is all about commercial exploitation of India’s forests

Out of the total forest in India, very dense forest (with canopy density of 70% and more) constitutes 2.99% of the area while each of category of moderately dense forests (40-70% canopy density) and open forest (10-40% canopy) is above 9% of the area, according to the latest India’s State of the Forest Report (ISFR), 2017. Representational Image

The ruling BJP favours Indian mythology but what it has proposed in the new forest policy reminds one of a famous tale from Greek mythology. In 1988, India adopted a National Forest Policy that called for “substituting wood wherever possible”. Three decades down the line, the BJP-led NDA government has proposed a revision of the old policy “to encourage usage of more timber” in order to reduce dependency on high carbon footprint wood substitutes, reliving the story of Sisyphus, who is punished for his self-serving deceitfulness by being forced to roll up a heavy boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down each time he nears the summit.

Ironically, the new draft admits that steps taken on the basis of the 1988 policy have benefitted the forests so far. The old policy strengthened ecological security and promoted participatory forest management in a sustainable manner. The new policy put forward by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seeks to improve the “productivity of Indian forests.”

“The draft policy places a lot of emphasis on increasing productivity (even in natural forests, in addition to plantations), and that, too, in a monetised framework. A strong thrust has been put on forward linkages with industry, especially in terms of plantations (including agro-forestry and farm forestry), and on public private partnerships,” says a disapproving letter written by nearly 14o non-governmental organisations from 15 states, to the ministry.

Forests cover 21.54% of India’s landmass while another 2.85% is covered by trees. Taken together, that’s less than 25% of India’s geographical area. The coverage area hasn’t increased substantially since 1988 when it was laid down that the goal was to have a forest cover of one-third of the country.

Out of the total forest in India, very dense forest (with canopy density of 70% and more) constitutes 2.99% of the area while each of category of moderately dense forests (40-70% canopy density) and open forest (10-40% canopy) is above 9% of the area, according to the latest India’s State of the Forest Report (ISFR), 2017.

The problem with the ISFR, however, is that the report is prepared on the basis of satellite imagery. From the sky, satellites can’t distinguish between natural forests and plantations or monoculture. Also, most of the forest growth took place in three southern states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala – that also house large plantations. On the contrary, the pristine forests of the North East declined sharply between 2015 and 2017.

It is not that the proposed policy doesn’t recognise the need to conserve natural forests. But it brings in an element of productivity in several aspects of forest conservation. “Existing natural forests should be fully protected and their productivity improved,” says the draft.

The Communists were the first to demand the withdrawal of the policy draft.

“The privatisation and commercialisation thrust dominates the policy document. This is a self-serving proposal from a ministry which is doing everything possible to hasten the privatisation of forests and to eliminate the rights of tribal communities,” said a statement issued by the CPM.

The policy has multiple references to private involvement in forestry. It not only calls for public-private participation to increase the productivity of forest plantations but also emphasises on creating “suitable location-specific public-private partnership models...for achieving the target of increased forest and tree cover in the country.” In addition, there are plans to incentivise “community-owned private forests” and following a government-dictated management guideline for these “private forests”.

Productivity and economic value are the new thrust areas. “The demand for timber and other forest produce is showing an increasing trend and is likely to continue as the economy grows. The dependence on import has been increasing drastically over the years. To ensure self-sufficiency in timber, the states would be encouraged to further develop their plantation programmes with scientific inputs and genetically improved planting materials,” it says.

 



No doubt that with growing population and urbanisation, India’s demand for timber is rising. India’s annual imports of logs and wood products increased from $500 million to $2.7 billion over the past decade, according to a 2014 report prepared by the US Department of Agriculture. The IFSR 2017 points out that annual production of timber is 4 million cubic metres, which is small in comparison to the total demand of timber.

Two past policy decisions – the 1988 document and a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that authorised only the central government to approve use of forest land for non-forestry purposes -- reduced timber production and wood-based industries in India as state governments lost their power to “de-reserve” certain forests for commercial harvesting. Also, sawmills that did not have explicit approval from the central government to harvest in forests were closed and the country shifted to log imports to meet its domestic requirement. Both policies were needed to curb uncontrolled felling of trees, catalysed by a politico-bureaucratic nexus.

This is what the new forest policy appears to reverse. But like many other decisions of the Narendra Modi government, there is complete opaqueness on the current trend in the log and wood-products imports. No analysis was done on the implementation of the 1988 policy and the steps undertaken in the last three decades to improve timber production without compromising the natural forests.

Another major loophole in the new draft is near-complete overlooking of the rights of the tribes living in the jungles for centuries. Strikingly important in the draft is the absence of the perspective and recognition to the rights of forest dwellers that came from the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

Earlier, forests were considered as a source of timber and revenue for the state, to be managed by the forest department. 

The perspective changed with the 2006 law that addressed the historical injustice inflicted on the adivasis and other forest-dwellers through the colonisation of the forest.

In addition, the new policy seeks to create a new legal structure that could further reduce the involvement of forest-dwellers in managing forest resources. A National Community Forest Management Mission with a legal basis and an operational framework has been proposed to execute forest management practices, in accordance with plans decided and finalised in Delhi or in the state capitals.

“A legally recognised body, the Gram Sabha, which has powers of forest management under existing laws such as FRA and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act is to be subordinated to a government-controlled body. This highly objectionable proposal undoes whatever little has been achieved in making tribal communities and gram sabhas the central pivot in forest management policies,” says the Left party in a statement.

In 2016, the NDA government had brought out an earlier draft national forest policy which, according to former environment minister Jairam Ramesh was better than the new draft. But the 2016 draft was discarded after some consultations. What will the ministry do with the 2018 draft that has attracted such strong criticism?

The jury is out!

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