Forest Policy 2018 is replete with failed, dangerous ideas

The draft National Forest Policy 2018 (NFP) disappoints on several counts. Despite the advancement of science and overwhelming data on the massive threats that forests face, the NFP is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions that have the potential to balance the competing needs of conservation and development. It is replete with unsuccessful ideas like Compensatory Afforestation, ignoring compelling evidence on failures documented by the CAG and parliamentary committees. There is also a dangerous proposal called “Enrichment of dense forests”, which will lead to hitherto untouched forests being tampered with. Where is the need to “enrich” already “dense forests”?

Fundamentally, the NFP should have moved from the Compensatory Afforestation approach to a scientific landscape/ecosystem regime. This would be crucial to address the serious threat of forest fragmentation -- the breaking up of large forest blocks into smaller patches due to the ill-planned intrusion of development projects. Research has clearly established that fragmentation has devastating impacts: it disrupts landscape connectivity, creates new edges, eliminates rare species and leads to steady degradation of habitat and increased human-wildlife conflict.

This demands specific policy prescriptions that encourage consolidation of large forest blocks by eliminating/minimising fragmentation through strategies that include: strategic acquisition of thickly forested leased lands, privately-owned forests and voluntary relocation of settlements deep within wildlife habitats. The policy ought to have highlighted the application of a large part of the (Compensatory Afforestation and Management Planning Authority (CAMPA) fund for such forest consolidation projects, but this has been completely overlooked.

Next, the NFP should have squarely addressed the unbridled grant of forests for development projects. However, to ensure a pragmatic balance between conservation and development, a more enabling fast-track forest clearance regime in scattered/small pockets of forests that do not form part of a large forested landscape or wildlife corridor or niche etc., should have been the preferred approach. As regards proposals seeking forest land in a contiguous forested landscape -- irrespective of the area sought – the policy should have discouraged this by applying the principle of avoidance, only making exceptions for site specific projects of national importance. 

As stated in the policy, improvement of forest cover is indeed an important goal. However, the current approach of Compensatory Afforestation, which relies primarily on raising plantations and “enrichment of dense forests” is not the right approach. What is essential is a new strategy that clearly makes a distinction between areas where forests stand degraded but contain root stock and those legally notified forests which have been completely mined/ploughed, etc. In the former, policy prescriptions of natural recovery based on strict protection only ought to apply.

Such a nuanced policy is vital to ensure that we recover degraded natural forests, instead of creating monoculture plantations. This will also ensure that the large Rs 90,000-crore CAMPA fund is not squandered away on ecologically damaging pit and plant projects in such degraded forests, scrub forests or grasslands. It would be hugely beneficial if the policy restricts artificial plantations to mined/ploughed or completely damaged areas only where natural recovery is not possible and in areas already under Forest Development Corporations.

Yet another worrisome idea is the proposed PPP model, which may encourage corporate stranglehold over vast areas of forests. This is baffling since the government has land, money and infrastructure to improve forest cover. The thrust of the policy must be on raising commercial tree crops and fuel wood on farm lands, which may also help mitigate farm distress.

Even though data has established that commercial extraction of non-timber forest products (NTFP) has resulted in dangerous over-extraction, the draft policy regrettably advocates promotion of “market-oriented approach embedded in sustainability as part of business plans”. The NFP must promote conservation of forests above all else. It must therefore be modified to stop promotion of NTFP under the veil of “sustainability” that only benefits certain large business houses aggressively marketing natural desi remedies.

To ensure conservation of wildlife habitats, voluntary relocation of people would logically be important. This assumes importance since wide-ranging rights have been granted over a whopping 50 lakh hectares of forest land since 2008, causing massive habitat loss and fragmentation. The NFP ignores this crucial aspect even though there is strong demand for resettlement.

Lastly, the policy prescription of “restoring habitats” must be qualified to restrict it to natural restoration only. Huge ecological damage is being perpetrated due to year-on-year funding to state forest departments through approval of poorly drafted management plans without due scientific scrutiny. These are packed with unnecessary but lucrative earth-moving and civil works for water retention trenches, excavation of feeder drains, check dams, enrichment planting, etc.

The NFP must be recast to stop the destruction of natural forests by such unscientific policy prescriptions which are also sowing the seeds for more corruption-ridden projects to be included in Working Plans. This is not in line with the government’s commitment to good governance. Overall, the draft NFP is poorly crafted and deserves to be scrapped. A competent panel of scientists and experts must be constituted to re-draft the policy. 

(The writer is a trustee of Wildlife First and has served on the National Board for Wildlife)

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