The Draft National Forest Policy, 2018, which has been released in the public domain by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, is up for serious discussion, especially due to some of its fine print that has been inter-woven with pointers that state good bit of truth to attract the gullible and less informed and build support for the Modi-led NDA Government’s proposed new forest regime at the very outset
The draft policy takes off by appreciating the forest policy that was introduced in 1988 by the then Congress government at the Centre led by Rajiv Gandhi.
The preamble of the proposed Forest Policy places on record that the principal aim of National Forest Policy, 1988 was to ensure environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance, including atmospheric equilibrium which are vital for sustenance of all life forms, human, animals and plants. The 1988 Policy recognized that derivation of direct economic benefits must be subordinated to this principal aim. This policy has been instrumental in strengthening ecological security, sustainable forest management, and participatory forest management. In sharp contrast, it has further been pointed out that the forest policies of 1894 & 1952 laid emphasis on the production and revenue generation aspects of the forests.
The proposed policy is intended to safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people, both in the present context as well as the future on the basis of sustainable management of the forests for the flow of ecsystem services. It has been emphasised while stating that the national goal for eco-security, the country should have a minimum of one-third of the total land area under forest and tree cover.
The need for a new forest policy has been justified on the ground that India has been participating in several international summits and conventions on protection of forests, wildlife and environment and the country stands committed to the global consensus in terms of goals. Besides need for a revised forest policy has been underscored in view of the objectives that have emerged during seminars and deliberations at the national level.
The draft forest policy talks of Promotion of cultivation, harvesting, transportation and marketing of wood would be ensured by relaxing the existing felling and transit regime in the country. This calls for fair degree of caution.
It also proposes promotion of cultivation, harvesting, transportation and marketing of wood by relaxing the existing felling and transit regime in the country. Inclusion of agro forestry and farm forestry in the Agricultural crop insurance scheme. It also puts Agro-forestry and farm forestry at par with the farm sector by proposing to encourage both these through commensurate incentives and operational support systems.
Agro-forestry and farm forestry needs relatively a bigger gestation period and can never figure in the scheme of things when it comes to the small, micro and marginal farmers, who are barely able to survive on their much fragmented landholdings. Obviously such incentives, if they were to get institutionalised, would be pocketed by the rich landed gentry that pays no direct tax at all and also those among the crony capitalists, who are capable of generating political patronage and resources at the drop of the hat. They would be the best candidates to take advantage of a policy that promises to give a major thrust to agro contraptions.
It is interesting to note that the proposed policy framework is rooted to the ground of modesty. It declares at the outset that the proposed policy emanates as an outcome of seminars and national level discussions. For gaining momentum and to push forward “the new policy” , it s has been pointed out that in focus are the people who are the true stakeholders when it comes to the forests and other forms of natural wealth, including non-teak forest produce. A multitude of the stakeholders are the ones who were encroachers on forest land and have benefited from the Forest Rights Act.
The preamble of the proposed forest policy endorses voices critical of the current unidirectional conservation oriented strategy and management of forest resources. There are many who have descried it as against the goal of inclusive growth and contrary to the interests of the marginalised people living in ecologically fragile zones. They have been underscoring the need to pull up the socks and take a quantum leap by making forest management and utilisation of its resources more people oriented. The draft Forest Policy, therefore offers to incentivise the people to join in this process of a paradigm shift when it comes to the management and utilisation of forest resources from timber and teak to herbs and other non-timber forests produce.
Those who have seen the performance of the Joint Forest Management Committees or the Van Samitis (forest committees) and gram sabhas from close quarters would testify how most of these have been reduced to political instruments to leverage the electoral prospects of the party in power from election to election. Forest officers at all levels would testify how funds meant to be channelised for afforestation and even maintaining the fire lines have got diverted with impunity for holding political galas and rallies. Its immaterial who is in power.
Once more, even the proposed forest policy talks of community participation in forest management. It has especially been asserted that all efforts to ensure synergy between Gram Sabha & JFMC will be taken for ensuring successful community participation in forest management.
The draft policy takes into consideration various threats to forests due to encroachments, illegal tree fellings, besides other factors such as forests fires, invasive weeds, and grazing and points out that these would be addressed within the framework of the approved Working Plan/ Management Plan and also by ensuring community participation in forest management. Nothing new in this. What has not been said is that encroachment and illegal felling will not be allowed and there will be strict enforcement to check this menace.
The proposal is to increase substantially the tree cover outside forests by incentivizing agro-forestry and farm forestry, facilitating assured returns, with enabling regulations and by promoting use of wood products. Furthermore, there is also thrust on promotion of cultivation, harvesting, transportation and marketing of wood by relaxing the existing felling and transit regime in the country.
It has also been pointed out that Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), such as medicinal and aromatic plants, oil seeds, resins, wild edibles, fibre, bamboo, grass etc. provide sustenance to forest dependent communities by supplementing their food and livelihood security. At the same go there is also emphasis on sustainable management of such produce. It has also been underlined that Value Chain approach that is climate-smart and market oriented and embedded in sustainability would be made compulsory and part of the business plans related to NTFP. Here arises the question: who will ensure this, JFMC, or gram Sabha, or some other enforcement agency that is yet to see the light of day.
The proposed policy also talks of promotion of trees outside forests & urban greens will be taken up on a mission mode for attaining the national goal of bringing one third of the area under Forests and tree cover and also for achieving the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) target of the country.
Instead of setting the goal of increasing forest productivity, mean annual increment, stratification, afforestation of denuded areas and ensuring that the forests remain living forests so that gradually we have forest to boast of and at least one third of the country’s area under forest cover. But what we are now talking of is “promotion of trees outside forests & urban greens will be taken up on a mission mode for attaining the national goal of bringing one third of the area under Forests and tree cover”. Another tall order after we have seen the utter failure of social forestry and the bubble and promise of the plantation sector that promised dreams and dividends to millions in this country who are yet to recover from the aftershock of deceit and treachery by the rogue plantation enterprises.
The draft forest policy bats for
Checking denudation and soil erosion in the catchments of rivers and the wetlands through integrated watershed management techniques and practices.
Maintaining environmental stability and conservation of biodiversity through preservation and conservation of natural forests.
Safeguarding of forest land by exercising strict restraint on diversion for non-forestry purposes, and strict oversight on compliance of the conditions.
Increasing substantially the forest/tree cover in the country through Afforestation & reforestation programmes, especially on all denuded and degraded forest lands and area outside forests.
Management of protected areas and other wildlife rich areas with the primary objective of biodiversity conservation and for enriching other ecosystem services.
Conserving and sustainably managing the mountain forests to ensure continuous flow of ecosystem services, including watershed, biodiversity, cultural and spiritual services to both upstream and downstream population.
Integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in forest management through the mechanism of REDD+(Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus) so that the impacts of the climate change is minimised.
It is also for ensuring that the existing natural forests should be fully protected and their productivity improved. Adequate measures will be taken to increase rapidly the forest cover on hill slopes, in catchment areas of rivers, lakes and reservoirs and ocean shores and, on semi-arid, and desert tracts.
Certainly there should be full marks for the proposal to restrict Schemes and projects which interfere with forests that cover steep slopes, catchments of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, geologically unstable terrain and such other ecologically sensitive areas.
What calls for a special word of appreciation is the declaration that Biodiversity of the forest areas of the country will be surveyed and documented systematically, and sites having exceptional taxonomic and ecological value will be conserved. Legal and administrative measures for protection of biodiversity against bio-piracy will be taken, in sync with National Biodiversity Act. Modern techniques of ex-situ conservation will be promoted for the preservation of Relic, Endangered and threatened (RET) species