Wealth of forests withheld
Forest departments across the country owe millions of rupees to communities. For 20 years communities toiled under the Joint Forest Management programme in the hope of getting shares in revenue …
Some 40 years ago an experiment began in Arabari forest range of West Bengal that caught the fancy of the nation. The forest authorities roped in the people living in the area in regenerating degraded forests. In return they offered them a share in forest resources and revenue. It worked. Two decades later the Centre adopted the Arabari model to start the Joint Forest Management programme. The response was such that today it involves 25 million people.
West Bengal promised 25 per cent share in profit from the sale of timber after five years of protection, besides free access to grass. In southern parts of the state where forests were most degraded communities joined hands with the forest department. They volunteered to plant saplings, prune plantations and patrol the forests. It was a win-win proposition. The department got help in regenerating forests and the people got fuel wood, fodder and the hope of income from timber sale.
After nearly two decades of labour they have regenerated 400,000 hectares (ha) of sal forests in the state, according to Atanu Raha, principal chief conservator of forests, West Bengal. Their monetary value is immense. Nearly half of the total forest in the state is thus regenerated and ready to be harvested. Time for economic boom? Turned out participants in the joint forest management (JFM) have received just a few hundred rupees each for a year of labour.
According to the residents of the first village covered under JFM, Sakhishol, in Arabari range in West Midnapore district, each of the 42 families has got Rs 318 every year from timber harvesting. At current daily wage rate, it is two days’ worth of labour of one person. None of the members knows the total revenue the department earned from timber.
The 40 ha of forest patch regenerated by the nearby Jharia village was harvested thrice between 2005 and 2008. Each of the 73 families earned Rs 14,000 for 20 years of protection, that is Rs 700 a year. Or Rs 140 for every person. “The money from the last felling in 2008 is still due to us. We don’t know the exact amount, perhaps Rs 2,000 per member,” says Gopal Mahato, a member of the forest protection committee, a nodal village-level organisation jointly managed with forest officers. The committee is mandatory under JFM. A community’s share is credited to its account which it distributes among participants.
Madhya Pradesh set out on a generous note. The state’s 1990 JFM resolution promised 20 per cent of the net profit from the felling of timber to forest protection committees in case of dense forest and 30 per cent of the net profit in the case of degraded forests. In 2001 in an unprecedented move, the government promised the committees the entire net profit from timber and bamboo in degraded forests. The new mechanism also laid down that half the money will be distributed among the members, while the rest will be used for forest and village resource development. Such an attractive proposition drew 16 million people into forest conservation and today 70 per cent of the state’s forest is covered under JFM.
But the promise was not kept. In 2004, the forest department issued orders restricting the benefit to 10 per cent of the net income from timber and 20 per cent of the net income from bamboo in all the forests. It directed that 75 per cent of this money be used in village resource development and 25 per cent on forest development work. This meant no cash to community. Madhya Pradesh is the only state that has done away with sharing cash benefits.
“The resolution is just a vision. JFM operates according to the orders issued by the department,” says R N Saxena, the state additional principal chief conservator of forests. Had the forest department shared cash benefit with participants it would have caused it some embarrassment. It has ploughed Rs 28.4 crore into the forest protection committees this year as their share from timber and bamboo sale. Were it to distribute this amount among participants, each person would have received Rs 18. In the past 20 years, Rs 164 crore has been distributed as bonus to the committees.
“The forest department has deliberately not distributed the amount among the members. If they did so, the disparity of benefit sharing would have been exposed,” says Anil Garg, a researcher on forest issues based in Betul.
Promises made in the 1990 resolution on sharing income from the items of nationalised minor forest produce too were not kept. Instead, communities’ right to use forest produce, called nistar, has been systematically eroded. Nistar was admitted as a right in the revenue records of the state. Subsequent enactments regulated it as privileges. JFM resolutions diluted these privileges to concessions or favours subject to the availability of the material. The present JFM resolution makes entitlement to nistar subject to the discretion of the divisional forest officer (DFO).
In fact, all the benefits from JFM are subject to the approval of the DFO. Every year, the forest protection committees have to get a certificate from the DFOs saying they have done satisfactory work to avail the benefits. “The process is so undemocratic that if the DFO decides not to give benefit to a committee, there is no way the committee can corner him to show that they have done satisfactory work,” says Madhu Sarin of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a non-profit working for tribal rights. Small wonder it takes years and frequent rounds to the DFO office to get the certificate of work.
Harvest time has come and gone but the residents of Sitarampeth village in Chandrapur district did not get a penny in return for protecting nearly 300 ha of reserve forest for over a decade. “No valuation has ever been done of the work done by us,” says Rambhau Dhande, a resident. The forest department has taken away the entire stock of timber without giving the community a share in it. Now the residents keep an eye on the 25 ha of teak plantation raised under JFM. It is ready for thinning. “We would like to fell teak for our own needs, but we dare not for fear of retribution from the department,” says resident Gomaji Naitam. The village of bamboo artisans has nurtured another 25 ha plantation of bamboo and other species but people are not allowed to cut bamboo for their own use.
Jambharla village in Chandrapur too saw its share disappear from right under its nose. “For five years since JFM was introduced in 2002, we worked hard to protect 195 ha of reserve forest. But no returns from the seized timber came our way, in cash or kind,” says JFM committee president Vishwasrao Gedam. “Now nobody is interested in JFM.”
According to the government order, a JFM committee has to be involved in forest protection for at least five years to be eligible for 50 per cent benefits. In case of plantations benefits will be provided after a minimum of 10 years. But many villages allege that the forest department harvests timber before the mandatory five years and denies them benefit. In village Karwan in Mul tehsil, the department felled a patch of forest before five years. “When we asked for an account the officials told us we had no say because five years were yet to be over,” says a resident. In Kargata in Sindewahi tehsil the same trick was adopted. “Our committee was formed in 2000,” says JFM committee member Indira Vethe. “But in 2004 the department felled huge quantities of teak without consulting us or giving us an account.” JFM committee president Devrao Vethe says, “Our microplan documents have been taken away by department officials.”
Despite years of effort, villages have not been able to access records on their share in benefits. Inquiries at the department’s Nagpur and Chandrapur offices reveal the reason: the department has not bothered to compile the records. The flaw is evident in the quarterly JFM reports since all other figures pertaining to the scheme are available in it. Asked for figures of forest produce harvested from JFM forests, conservator of forests, JFM, Anoop Wadhwa, said the records would have to be compiled from data available with circle offices. Asked why separate records were not maintained for a project as important as JFM, Wadhwa said the main aim of the programme is not timber accounts but forest protection. “Department officials should read the government rules,” quips Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, an activist with non-profit Vrikshamitra active in the region. “Benefit sharing is the most crucial inducement for JFM, and if the department is going to deny this, then there is no reason they should expect people to cooperate.”
G R K Rao, chief conservator, Chandrapur circle, admits no monetary returns were ever given to villages under JFM. “The mechanism for sharing benefits has not been finalised by the government yet,” says he. But the government has done one thing; it has reduced community benefits from 50 per cent to 20 per cent in case of dense forests in its 2003 order and introduced procedures and institutional mechanism to favour forest department monopoly. As per the 1992 resolution, the JFM committee was the sole agency responsible for preparing conservation policy, microplan in officialese. In 2003, government changed certain vital clauses, making it necessary that the microplan be in accordance with the prevailing working plan of the forest department. A committee consisting mostly of forest officials was given the power to approve the microplan. Entitlement of JFM committees was limited to the “incremental volume” of the forest area to be calculated by the forest officer concerned.
Beyond Jethiabhai Basawa’s mud house in the foothills of Aravali extends a 75-hectare patch of barren land. It was once lush bamboo forest worth Rs 9 lakh. After joining the JFM programme in 1996, his village Munkapada in Rajpipla district had nurtured it in the hope of making some money. But in 2003, the forest department allowed a paper mill to harvest the forest for a payment of Rs 36,748. “This is sheer injustice,” says Jethiabhai. “The village spent years patrolling the forest.”
Under the state JFM benefit-sharing mechanism for degraded forest, the village should have got half the net revenue. “It happened because there was no clarity in the (forest department’s) working plan about what will be the benefit-sharing pattern in JFM areas where paper mills have also been allocated bamboo,” says Thakarse Dawra, project specialist, forestry, with Agha Khan Rural Support Programme in Bharuch district. The forest department has taken note of this, says Sashi Kumar, the district forest officer at Rajpipla, east division. The village has decided not to participate in JFM ever.
In Sabarkantha district, residents of Vejpur village have abandoned the forest they protected for 17 years. “We used to sit in a group of eight-ten every night to watch over the forest,” says 65-year-old Ramjibhai Khumaji, former army officer who took lead in forest protection under JFM. Years of protection raised a dense forest. “The forest department promised us 50 per cent share in the profit but we have not got anything yet,” says Asari Kavji Bhai Saroji, acting president of the Tree Growers Cooperative Society recognised as the JFM committee.
Prakash Rawal, district forest officer, Sabarkantha South, has a different story to tell. “Many forests under JFM are ready for harvesting but people ask for 50 per cent share in gross profit. This is not possible under current JFM rules,” he says. Until that is cleared, no harvesting can be done. Absence of working plans is another reason harvesting is held up. Such plans should have been prepared along with the communities.
In case of dense forest Gujarat has a novel approach. Of the net revenue it sets aside 20 per cent for traditional tree cutters united under a federation and gives 20 per cent of the remaining 80 per cent, that is 16 per cent of the net revenue, to JFM committees in kind, not cash. The aim is to use the JFM benefits to strengthen livelihood options. For example in Dangs, a densely forested district, JFM has been linked to animal husbandry and agriculture.
“The problem of forestry is actually poverty. Until this is addressed, real empowerment of people is difficult,” says C N Pandey, chief conservator of forests, Gujarat. By 2008 a little over Rs 500 lakh of net profit had been generated in North Dangs through harvesting of JFM forests. Of this over Rs 80 lakh has been shared with communities. Given that 684 families are engaged in JFM in North Dangs, per family share is Rs 11,725. In Borkhal village in South Dangs the share of each family comes to Rs 10,189.
The forest department offered two options to the residents to redeem their share in benefits. They can either buy a cow or level land for farming. The department subsidises a cow, costing between Rs 21,000 and Rs 25,000, by Rs 10,000. A total of 54 cows have thus been bought in the two villages in March-April this year. Data available with residents shows that each family earned Rs 854 to Rs 1,200 a month from selling milk.
It is a good addition to their income, especially in a place like Dangs where people migrate for just Rs 10,000. At least selling cow’s milk gives them a sustained income, says Pradeep Singh, divisional forest officer, Dangs, South Zone.
Those who opted for land levelling hire a tractor. It costs Rs 400 for an hour. “The terrain in Dangs is undulating. Land levelling will help generate sustained income to villagers,” said Munav Sheikh, range forest officer, Ahwa East in Dangs.
Similar experiment has been done in Rajpipla east division where the forest department gives subsidy for drip irrigation under JFM.
As Singh says the system is evolving. “We are learning and finding ways to sustain the experiment.”
Andhra Pradesh is the only state that claims to have calculated exact timber and bamboo revenue shares transferred to communities under JFM. The World Bank funded the programme with generous loans of Rs 1,000 crore for 15 years till March 2009. Benefits shared are impressive. According to the World Bank’s assessment of July 2010, each forest protection committee has been earning between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 4 lakh every year from timber thinning operations. Gross revenue from bamboo harvesting in the project period has been Rs 825 lakh. In addition to this, since 2006 the forest department has transferred Rs 39.5 crore, the total revenue from selling beedi leaves, to the committees. Among the five states leading in JFM work, communities have earned the highest in Andhra Pradesh.
Since 1996 the entire net revenue from all forest produce is distributed among members of forest protection committees (or Vana Surakhsa Samitis, VSSs) in the state. Earning from timber in plantations raised under JFM is shared using a different mechanism. This is dependent on the timber species’ rotation period, that is the time required for the species to reach a size at which it can be harvested. If a community has managed the plantation for more than half of the rotation period, it gets all the net revenue. Half of the community share is given to members and the rest is used for village development.
But the impressive story fizzles out as one enters villages with substantial JFM forests. “They (the forest department) will steal the hair off our heads if we let them,” says C Kothanna, miming the act. Kothanna is former president of Vankachinta village’s VSS in Visakhapatnam. He is referring to the forest department’s lack of transparency in sharing benefits under JFM. Since JFM began in 1994, the department has harvested bamboo once, three years ago. “We got Rs 27,000 for two truckloads of bamboo. We were not told how much the bamboo sold for,” says Kothanna.
In several villages, people claim, the department often denies permission to cut bamboo. When they do give permission it is at the wrong time. “Last year we got permission to cut bamboo during busy farming season,” says K Nageswara, VSS president in Vankachinta. This despite the village getting community rights over the JFM forest under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2010. The right gives them full control over bamboo.
While the forest department claims benefit sharing as per the rule book, people feel otherwise. “We don’t know how much is in the VSS bank account. The department keeps all the documents,” says Koppala Arjuna, VSS member, Shrikrishnapuram, Visakhapatnam.
Within two years of the World Bank funding coming to an end, the JFM programme is on shaky ground. Pace of work has slowed, forcing the state to tap into the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to keep it going. The fund crunch has led to resentment. Some have started to cut trees on the sly. The State Forest Report of 2010 bears this out. It shows a net loss of 33 sq km of forest cover in JFM areas and 3,300 ha of good forest turning degraded between 2007 and 2008. Others have taken decision-making into their own hands. “We planted cashew though the department protested,” says Vengala Pedaraju, former VSS president, Shrikrishnapuram.
In Shrikrishnapuram and Dabbanda villages on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, tired of waiting for the permission, people have started cutting down bamboo in small quantities without telling the department. This area falls within the proposed Kambalkonda National Park and that is why the permission is denied, says P Devullu of Sanjeevani, a non-profit that works on forest-related issues in the area. “We have been nurturing these eucalyptus, teak and casuarina plantations since 1995. Then in 2002 they declared it a protected area, so we cannot reap the rewards of our hard work,” complains D Venkatesh, secretary of the village committee formed under FRA in Dabbanda. These villages are demanding they be compensated for the revenue lost due to the area being declared protected.
The concept of JFM is alluring enough to keep people engaged in conservation for years. But when it comes to sharing the fruits it is a practical joke. For every hundred rupees earned from timber sale a JFM committee usually gets only Rs 17.5 in cash, thanks to the forest department’s talent for developing a benefit-sharing formula guaranteed to deliver skewed results.
Communities’ share is calculated on the net income, not gross, despite a recommendation by an expert group formed by the National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board in 1996 to compute the benefit based on the gross income. Generally, the forest department deducts about 30 per cent as costs incurred in implementing the programme from the gross income. It then deducts 50 per cent of the remaining amount as its share. This sum is further split into half to be distributed as cash (see ‘Unfair formula’).
Implementation of JFM programmes is expensive. The cost of afforestation, for example, is about Rs 20,000 per ha. Governments claim cost of operation from the harvesting revenue even when it is funded by other agencies. “Nobody knows how the forest departments fix the cost of harvesting. But it is definitely not fair,” says N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council who headed the committee on the Forest Rights Act’s implementation.
In the first decade of JFM, governments faced complaints of skewed benefit sharing. In 2002 the Centre issued a new set of guidelines. These were supposed to be corrective measures but made benefit sharing even more stringent and consequently brought down community share. The new guidelines allowed JFM in good forest but set a different standard for their management, giving the forest department unprecedented control over JFM committees. According to these guidelines, JFM activities in good forests should concentrate on minor forest produce (MFP) and no alteration should be permitted in the department’s working plan except to promote regeneration, development and sustainable harvesting of MFP.
The share of benefit from timber harvest was limited to 20 per cent in both good and degraded forests, which communities could avail of only after 10 years of “satisfactory” work. The Union environment and forests ministry also stifled community say by creating an institution that gives the forest department the power to decide on matters. The Forest Development Agency (FDA) was created to deal with JFM. It is a district-level institution that is treated as a federation of 50-odd JFM committees (JFMCs).
JFM institutions plan forestry activity, while FDA sanctions the money for it. Guidelines for the agreements FDAs sign with JFM institutions state: “The MoU should, inter alia, include the right of FDAs to stop and withdraw funding from a JFMC if the performance of the JFMC is found to be unsatisfactory along with the procedure to be adopted in such cases.” The report of the National Forest Rights Act Committee found that FDAs weakened autonomy of village-level bodies. “FDAs are the federations of JFM committees but the president and the secretary are both forest officers and they act as a conduit for channelling Central funds,” stated the report.
“This was the biggest tragedy with JFM in the past decade,” says Chetan Agarwal a consultant with environmental non-profit Winrock International India. In late 1990s a few states like Himachal Pradesh and Haryana started devolution of power in JFMCs by revising their guidelines to appoint the secretary of the committee from among the village residents. “But the 2002 guidelines played the spoilsport. They required that the secretary of JFMC be from the forest department, and made JFM a funding-driven bureaucratic structure, which defeated the purpose of long-term engagement of forest officials and communities in forest protection,” adds Agarwal.
Another trick that keeps away benefits from community is the absence of working plans for forests under JFM. “Communities always complain we don’t harvest forests to avoid benefit sharing but there is no working plan to do so,” says Aurobindo Behera, principal secretary, forest and environment, Odisha. In 1997, the Supreme Court banned harvesting of forest without a working plan. In most states there has not been any attempt to prepare the working plans. More than 10,000 forest protection committees have forests ready to be harvested. Forest officials say it may take another 10 to 15 years to prepare working plans and get approval from the Union environment ministry.
The JFM programme faces existential crisis. On the one hand, pieces of legislation like the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996, have come into existence, giving rights to tribals and forest dwellers over forest resources and their management. On the other hand, communities demand the huge sums forest departments owe them under the programme. Questions are being raised whether the programme should be scrapped.
In January this year, one high-level committee and the politically influential National Advisory Council suggested drastic changes in the programme. The National Forest Rights Act Committee (NFRAC), constituted to review the implementation of FRA, recommended that wherever community forest rights are recognised under the Act, JFM committees be scraped. It said the powers and resources of JFM committees should be transferred to the committees of gram sabhas formed under FRA. Going one step further, NAC recommended that in all the forest villages the management of community forest resources be suo moto handed over to the gram sabha and the forest department should just act as a facilitator. This means downsizing JFM drastically. Ten dissenting members of the 20-member NFRAC even suggested scrapping of JFM and creating an alternative model on the line of the forest rights law in areas where community claims are declined.
While these recommendations were being debated, the environment ministry threw its weight behind JFM. Many see this move as counter to FRA that has substantially reduced the department’s scope in forest villages. The Green India Mission to combat climate change suggests amendments in the Indian Forests Act and the panchayati raj Acts to give JFM committees the power of a forest officer. The mission document says these committees will be recognised as legal entities of gram sabhas. It also talks about strengthening the Forest Development Authorities.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had asked the states to place JFM committees under the control of gram sabhas. In a letter written to the chief ministers in October last year, he said these committees should be made standing committees of panchayats. The letter directed that the state panchayat laws and JFM guidelines be amended to ensure that these committees are recognised as organs of the gram sabhas. He reiterated this in another letter written to the states in March this year. The minister said these changes were required in the context of the decentralised governance envisaged by the 73rd Ammendment of the Constitution in 1993 and the PESA Act. Forest officials of all the states Down To Earth visited, except West Bengal, have rejected the minister’s proposal.
Activists doubt government’s intentions. “Instead of changing the structure of these committees, the ministry wants them to be given the statutory and legal authority that gram sabha-based committees enjoy under the panchayat laws and FRA,” says Shankar Gopalakrishnan of non-profit Campaign for Survival and Dignity. “In the name of democratising JFM the ministry is trying to foist JFM committees on the gram sabha instead of allowing gram sabhas to exercise their legal powers which do not require joint management of any kind.” In the Green India Mission, all the Mission’s bodies above the village level are controlled by the forest department. “How is the gram sabha to manage anything if funds, policies and coordination are controlled by the forest department,” he asks.
“Expectations from JFM have increased and people have started demanding that equity, empowerment of the community and rights of the people be essential ingredients of JFM,” says a senior official of the environment ministry. “The government’s response to these expectations has been inadequate.” The official says the problems with JFM started with the World Bank coming into the picture (see ‘Donors drive JFM’). “As the funds started pouring, JFM, which was initiated as a region-specific measure where a few committees were working for genuine objectives, became a campaign. Constitution of forest protection committees was made a prerequisite for forestry funding and thousands of committees were formed overnight,” he adds. “The programme became target-oriented and the institutions thus formed lacked the foresight. Eventually, it lost ground.”