Attack on India’s forests and forest communities: Draft National Forest Policy 2018

  • April 13, 2018

Soumitra Ghosh

India’s forests are officially on sale. Forests, which are ecological and cultural constructs intrinsically linked with human communities that have been living in and using those for ages, have turned into mere repositories of ‘products’ such as timber and ‘ecosystem services’ that could be quantified, valued, priced and exchanged—or so the Draft National Forest Policy prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change(MoEF & CC) would have us believe.  By focussing on ‘products’ and ‘services’ instead of the bond between humans and their forest landscapes, the draft Policy betrays its market bias—it becomes clear even from the preamble that forests are being seen not as life support systems but economic entities, subjects of extraction for commercial gains.
Historically speaking, there is not much of a surprise in this. Forests in India and elsewhere in the world have been ceaselessly exploited and ravaged for commercial purposes,  more so in the wake of colonialization. These have also been perceived as ‘evil’, ‘dark’ and ‘barbaric’—meant ultimately to be cleared and reclaimed as revenue-yielding land. Forests qua forests meant little or no value, hence the need to add or create such values—primarily by replacing natural vegetation with plantations of ‘valuable’ timber-bearing trees. The colonial foresters called the process scientific management of forests; unless ‘managed’ forests cannot be made productive.

The 2018 draft policy admits as much: “The forest policies of 1894 and 1952 have stressed on the production and revenue generation aspects of the forests”, it says. The National Forest Policy, 1988, in contrast, aimed “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….recognized that derivation of direct economic benefits must be subordinated to this principal aim”, it goes on to observe. Not that the policy led to major legislative changes immediately. On the contrary, though it recognized the central role of forest communities such as forest-dwelling scheduled tribes as well as other forest dwellers in forest conservation, besides recognizing their access and use of forests, the policy goals came into direct conflict with the existing legal regime that continued to deny any role for forest communities in forest governance.

The 2018 policy mulls a return to the glorious days of production forestry; only, it talks of new products such as ‘ecosystem services’(a bundle/package of potential ‘value’-yielding functions of any natural ecosystem) as well. The forests have become low-producing, the new policy says: “the low quality and low productivity of our natural forests…have been the issues of serious concern…for biodiversity conservation and the need to enhance forest ecosystem services, through new technological advancements and the continuously declining investments in the sector present new challenges for forest management in the country”. Unfortunately, increased investments in forestry sector and ‘ecosystem services’ ‘enhanced through new technological advancements’ are not ecological issues at all—these do not ensure ecological security or any improvement in the quality of life of millions of impoverished and generally beleaguered forest dwellers of this country.

The new forest policy not only departs from the goals of its predecessor but also prescribes a host of foolproof strategies to operationalize new goals and objectives which can have far-reaching impacts on Indian forests and forest communities. While there is an obvious attempt to couch these changes in vague, tentative and unexplained terms such as ‘sustainable forest management’ , ‘ecosystem security’, ‘climate change mitigation and adaptation’, ‘participatory forest management’ and ‘multi-stakeholder convergence in forest management’, the new policy omits certain important facts, one doubts deliberately.

Since 1988 forest policy, two landmark legislations in the form of Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers(Recognition of Forest Rights Act)2006(FRA) and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996(PESA), have been enacted in India. Both these Acts seek to usher in a more inclusive, holistic and ethical perception of forest governance, especially FRA, which attempts to decolonize the hitherto prevalent governance paradigm in Indian forests. Both acts also build upon the promises of the 1988 policy. It’s unacceptable that such potent and significant statutes would be completely ignored by a new National Forest Policy.

To come back to the goals and objectives of the new policy. goals and objectives. “The overall objective and goal”, it is stated, “is to safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people, of the present and future generations, based on sustainable management of the forests for the flow of ecosystem services in order to achieve the national goal for eco-security”. What does this mean in actuality? If the objective is to ‘safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people’, what is the point of harping on ‘ecosystem services’, which is a market term at best, and nowhere properly explained? Isn’t it instead imperative to ensure that a new forest policy would be in consonance with both FRA and PESA, and would seek to create an enabling environment for more administrative and statutory reforms aimed towards a complete turn-around from the colonial and exploitative management paradigm? The text remains vague throughout. Another objective is “improvement in livelihoods for people based on sustainable use of ecosystem services”. What is meant by ‘sustainable use of ecosystem services’? What is the guarantee that such sustainable use of ecosystem services’ won’t choke forest-based livelihoods instead of improving those, or lead to increased denial of rights, given particularly the general scenario of consistent violation of FRA 2006 by Indian state and forcible displacement of entire communities in the name of development as well as wildlife protection and tiger reserves? Yet another objective is: “Safeguard forest land by exercising strict restraint on diversion for non-forestry purposes, and strict oversight on compliance of the conditions”. The reality, however, is that forest lands continue to be diverted in India and existing regulatory regime has proved terribly inadequate in arresting/minimizing such diversions. The only really potent instrument of arresting forest diversion, i.e. FRA 2006(which empowers the communities and community institutions such as Gram Sabhas to take suitable measures to halt activities that can damage their natural and cultural heritage)is altogether ignored by the draft NFP. Another apparently laudable objective is to increase “…the forest/tree cover in the country through Afforestation & reforestation programmes, especially on all denuded and degraded forest lands and area outside forests”. Increase forest/tree cover by ‘Afforestation & reforestation’ indeed: experiences from plantation sites across the country show that ongoing Afforestation programmes such as Compensatory Afforestation and Green India Mission encroach upon community-governed forests, agricultural land, village commons and pastures.

On another note, it is told that “…green accounting, valuation of ecosystem services and climate change concerns” will be factored “adequately into the planning and management of all forests, protected areas and other ecosystems”. Almost in the same breath it is stated that that “the tree cover outside forests” will increase substantially “by incentivizing agro-forestry and farm forestry, facilitating assured returns, with enabling regulations and by promoting use of wood products”. In the first more dubious and highly contested terms: there doesn’t exist at present any standardized and universally accepted method of valuation of ecosystem services—moreover, such valuation inevitably leads to marketization of entire forest ecosystems, depriving forest communities from their livelihood, alienating them from their source of life and culture.  In the second, market instruments meant for increasing corporate profit, and not ‘improvement of livelihood’ were paraded(2.3). Also, promotion of wood products would be in evident conflict with ‘climate change concerns’(2.11). In the same vein, it is said that “climate change mitigation and adaptation measures” would be integrated 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”. Going by the National REDD+ Strategy 2015, the integration of REDD+ targets and strategies in forest management would directly hurt the interests of forest communities and violate FRA 2006. Also, the all-important fact that community forest governance as provided in FRA 2006 in itself is a strong enough way to conserve forests and biodiversity. Communities taking care of their forests will not need carbon money that might or mightn’t come through REDD+.

Goals and objectives are followed by “essential management principles”, which are equally regressive, self-contradictory and vague. For instance, it is first stated that “existing natural forests should be fully protected and their productivity improved”(3.1), and then “Productivity of the forest plantations will be increased through scientific and technological interventions so as to encourage usage of more timber so that the dependency on other high carbon footprint wood substitutes is reduced(3.2)”. How could ‘natural forests’ be ‘fully protected’ and their ‘productivity improved’ nonetheless? So far as Indian forests are concerned, those have been plundered time and again in the name of ‘improving productivity’, a process that has gradually replaced ecologically invaluable forests with mostly monoculture plantations, and continues to this day. On the other hand, use of timber means more tree felling and continued extraction. How can it be remotely expected to be compatible with protection of natural forests(3.1) and REDD+( 2.13)? In 3.4, it is said that “For conservation of flora, fauna and total biodiversity, the network of national parks, sanctuaries, conservation reserves, community reserves, biosphere reserves and important wildlife corridors and biodiversity heritage sites will be strengthened and extended adequately”. How does this ‘principle’ reconcile itself with the fact that the prevalent model of exclusive and coercive fortress model of conservation practised in India has so far only succeeded to perpetuate the historic injustice against forest communities and kept on ceaselessly violating FRA 2006? In principle 3.6, more violations of FRA and PESA are encouraged: “Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) such as medicinal and aromatic plants, oil seeds, resins, wild edibles, fibre, bamboo and grass etc. will be sustainably managed for improving the income of the tribals& other forest dependent populations.” Who would ‘manage’ forests in future?  Whereas the FRA and PESA provide for autonomy and self-determination, by laying down a mechanism for self-governance in Indian forests, the draft NFP continues to peddle the notion of a ‘management’ imposed from above.

The ‘principles’ are followed by ‘Strategy’ and the cat is finally out of the bag. It is made clear that in order to “increase the productivity of forest plantations”, “Public private participation models will be developed for undertaking Afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests”. This is, by far, the most objectionable part of the Draft NFP. This prescribes raising of commercial plantations in ‘degraded forest areas’ and outside forests under Public Private Partnership (PPP) models. Not only is this in direct contravention of the 1988 Forest Policy, but also potentially most hurtful to the marginalised forest communities of India. This is but another attempt to legitimize the process of handing over the country’s forests to private corporations, something the industrial leaders have been demanding for long in collusion with the forest bureaucracy. In 2015, the NDA government tried to issue ‘guidelines’ to state governments and UTs, allowing ‘forest concessions’ to private sector companies in what it perceives as state-owned forests; 40 percent of ‘identified’ degraded forests could be given away on lease to private companies for raising plantations, it was prescribed.

Besides privatizing, the other important ‘strategy’ is to initiate necessary legislative reforms to undermine the primacy of community institutions in forest governance. While in 4.1.i. g, it has been said that “management of forests & forest plantations will be done as per the Central Government approved Working/Management plans, and also in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change from time to time”, no mention has been made of Community-governed forests and plans for those made by community institutions such as Gram Sabha. This has to be read in conjunction with the strategy in 4.i.i.h–of ‘participatory forest management’. It is provided that a new ‘National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission’, with ‘a legal basis and an enabling operational framework’ will be launched, which means that laws would be suitably amended to allow this. Though ‘synergy between Gram Sabha & JFMC’ is mentioned, this is a clear attempt to dilute the empowering provisions of FRA, particularly its Section 5, which allows for overarching primacy of Gram Sabha in matters of forest governance.  It is also an attempt to legitimize the undemocratic process of JFM, which is being used by forest officials across the country to undermine the authority of Gram Sabha.

Continuing with more pointed attack on Gram Sabhas, it is said that all “Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) such as medicinal and aromatic plants, oil seeds, resins, wild edibles, fibre, bamboo, grass etc. would be “managed sustainably” and “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”. According to provisions of FRA, Gram Sabhas and their members have complete control of all NTFP in Indian forests. There is no scope whatsoever for any other agency to ‘manage’ these. Once again, there is a deliberate attempt to subvert the authority of Gram Sabha and communities. Also, there is a veiled attempt at privatization of NTFP by talking of ‘compulsory’ ‘climate-smart’ and ‘market oriented’ ‘Value Chain approach’.

The new draft policy contains more attempts at encouraging large and corporate-owned industrial tree plantations on agricultural land(4.1.2). Experiences of such plantations from across India and elsewhere in the world suggest that such plantations do not serve the interests of the farmers, agricultural workers or the common people. On the contrary, the monoculture plantations affect both farmland ecology and food security, besides destroying or badly affecting agricultural livelihoods.

Finally, 4.2.1(production Forestry), 4.2.2(economic valuation of forests), 4.2.4(forest certification) and 4.2.5(Integrate climate change concerns & REDD+ strategies in forest management) together attempt to provide a mechanism for total financialization of Indian Forests—forests are seen as subjects of continued extraction and producers of marketable values owned by state and big corporations. This allows for a new regime of commercial forestry in India, at the cost of forest communities and the forest systems that sustain them.

To conclude, a single statement(or demand) should suffice: the 2018 Draft National Forest Policy must be scrapped, in its entirety, without delay.

Soumitra Ghosh( is a social activist and researcher working with the forest communities in Sub-Himalayan West Bengal.

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