Why Are India’s Forest Policies Failing?

Forest Laws, by definition, ‘govern activities in forestlands, with respect to management and timber harvesting.’

At least a dozen laws have been formulated in India, regulating wildlife, forest resources, and climate change, in the past 70 years. They all give separate powers to the state and national governments to take decisions aimed at increasing India’s forest cover to 33% of the total geographical area by 2020. And with almost 275 million people dependant on forests for their livelihood, it is vital that the country place special focus on preserving and developing forests.

But are the laws really fruitful? It is ironical to think that despite so much regulation, India’s forest cover is ever depleting. According to reports, in the past 95 years, India has lost about 40% of its green cover. Where does the flaw lie? Is it in our policy or its implementation?

Let’s take a look at how India fares on the forest management scale.

This Act was enacted during the British rule, in addition to the Forest Act of 1878. Both the 1878 and 1927 acts sought to reserve the areas having forest cover or significant wildlife. This was done to ensure proper use/trade of forest produce like timber, and regulate the taxes levied on them. The Act also categorised forest areas as – Reserved Forest, Village Forest or Protected Forest and laid down guidelines for tourist activities allowed in these areas.

This was one of the initial laws carved by the British government not just to protect forests, but also regulate trading activities of forest resources like wood, fruits, sap, etc. And while this Act successfully protected our forest for years, it’s the 2017 Lok Sabha Bill that made it flawed.

The amendment of the Indian Forests Act omitted the need for permissions for felling and trade of bamboo. This was done because bamboo cultivation in India is increasing and it gives farmers a supporting income when other crops fail. But in the long run, this amendment will be counter-productive for the environment. It will give easy access for felling trees and allow a bamboo mafia to thrive in limited regulation. How? We know for a fact that timber and weed mafias run heavy activity in restricted forests, as there aren’t many people around. In many instances, these mafias have deliberately started forest fires, to acquire resources that they wouldn’t have otherwise got access to. By doing so, they can easily cover up the excessive felling of trees and take help from bribed forest officials.

It doesn’t make sense giving easy passage to tree felling, especially in a country where corruption is high and that’s already seen the rise of mafias in deregulated industries.

Although the country had to wait three decades to get the new forest policy (previous in 1988), it sure looks promising, with a plan to pay particular attention to fresh challenges – decreasing green cover, human-animal conflict and increased climate changes.

The draft, though unapproved, proposed to reduce the activity of humans in existing forests and create new forests on arid lands using scientific experiments. This is how it plans to bring the forest cover to 33%. These ideas weren’t drawn in any previous plans, simply because the idea of technologically producing forests seemed too expensive and risky. But the government has now found a solution. And that’s where the problem occurs.

While it sounds like a solid plan, it received a lot of flak for three reasons. First, the idea was to allow private investments in forest technology. People were quick to point out that the move was a BJP quip to let the private sector enter forests. Before this, forests had been completely under the control of the state governments with absolutely no say to private parties. But now, the plan is to innovate. How do you increase forest cover in low fertility areas? Technology is needed and the affordability comes from privatisation.

Second, current forestlands have several other development activities going on like mining, agriculture, and construction. Although it’s right of the government to not part with forestland for such things, it needs to provide an alternative area. Agriculture for one is equally as important as forestry. And farming families that use this land for their livelihood need replacement, which the draft fails to offer.

Finally, the draft hasn’t given enough attention to the plight of tribal communities who were ousted from forest areas. These communities consider the forest as their home and live off hunting and forest produce. Their homes were previously torn apart to construct housing and facilities for urban populace. Ironic, isn’t it?

Although, the rights of these tribal have been addressed in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006 legally recognises the rights of certain communities who live in the forests and help take care of it. The Act not only gives rights to tribals to live in forest areas but also access to collect forest produce and regenerate resources.

But why did we need a special act to authorise their life in the forests in the first place? It’s because human activities brought immense losses to their livelihoods. Mining led to contamination of forest lakes and infertility of land, mafia activities led to forest fires, trees were felled to construct resorts, and tourist attraction sites were termed National Parks. The government approved grazing of large chunks of forest areas to build houses and highways for urbanisation.

Human thirst for development and profit ruined forests and lives of people living in it. This is why the government had to come up with a law that restored tribal lives by giving them rights to live in and look after the forests.

But despite such efforts, the Act has a minor impediment in its execution. It grants permission to village assemblies (Gram Sabha) to take the final call in matters affecting tribals. Instead of determining the tribal families in an area and giving them direct rights, village panchayats were entrusted with providing justice. This means they can decide as to how a case should be treated under the act, and of course, ulterior motives do play a part. Villagers don’t always follow the law. They may take away rights from a family due to personal grudges or prejudices. And at the end, there is no guarantee of justice for tribal communities.

With a whopping 250 projects and a new-fangled approach, the 3rd National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) has the potential for some path-breaking changes.

It takes a new ‘landscape’ approach as opposed to the prior ‘area’ approach that was confined only to the protected areas of the country. This means that the plan looks at the importance of wildlife protection in terms of the whole country as compared to just wildlife areas. Once you focus on the impact on the country, the purpose becomes clearer. Now it’s not just about saving wildlife, but about the ‘why’ factor of doing so.

It aims at tackling the human-animal conflict arising due to human development activity in wildlife zones.

But where are the results?

study published in Conservation India shows that 85% of the tourist resorts and hotels are located within 5 km of wildlife zones. They draw water and wood from the area — sometimes at the cost of the animals themselves, and dump garbage with no regard for the environment. There’s also free entry for civilians into wildlife zones with no ceiling on the number of people or vehicles allowed, or the permitted behaviours. Yet, the plan makes of mention of tackling these issues. In addition, it also proposes to focus on private sector participation in conservation of wildlife – something people have already established is counter-productive.

In conclusion, each of the policies can be merited for focussing on specific aspects of forests, but they leave lots of room for corruption and failure. What we really need is a consolidated plan that brings all aspects of forests under a single law. Is that possible? Can we really devise a one law fits all situation?

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