India's forest cover has been showing a rapid decline. With community participation and social forestry being alien concepts the government sponsored conservation drives were unable to touch the chord of success. To ensure better co-operation, the joint forest management ( jfm ), programme was proposed by the ministry of environment and forest. It was conceived in 1988 for creating people's movement to minimise pressure on the existing forests with the involvement of people. Its objective was to bring 33 per cent of the country's landmass under forest and tree cover. Even after completing more than a decade in existence, only 22 states have adopted the programme.
Around 10 mha of forestland is being managed by 36,130 committees. The success of the programme made the Ministry of environment and forests revise the jfm guidelines and issue landmark guidelines. It sharpened its focus on 200,000 villages in and around forests. The ministry directed all states and union territories to form societies with required legal back up by March 31, 2000. But the response was disappointing.
The revised guidelines provide for extension of jfm programme, enhance the contribution for regeneration of forest resources and cater to self-initiated groups. The ministry wants to cover another 20 mha, including 14 mha of degraded forests, by 2020. The jfm has enormous potential to check migration from rural to urban areas, with employment opportunities opening up. The rural population needs jobs for their sustenance. The programme can generate considerable capital for the local population to undertake area specific development work like repair of roads and construction of check dams.
When rural populations do not have adequate employment opportunities to sustain themselves, they encroach into the forests areas for survival. During the period1950-1980 about 450,000 hectares of forestland was diverted for nonforest purposes. Nearly one third of this area was encroached by people. The Forest Conservation Act 1988 was a bold attempt to drastically reduce diversion of forestland for non-forestry purposes. The act did serve its purpose and the diversion of forestland was reportedly reduced to less than 20,000 hectares per annum.
When the jfm was launched in 1990 considering the socioeconomic impact of the programme on the rural poor, it was hoped that encroachment into forest areas would come down drastically. In designated areas there was neither any scope nor necessity for encroachment, since the focus was on community control and social fencing. But ground realities were different.
Addressing the consultation committee meeting the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, said that the moef was planning to regularise encroachment into forests using 1980 as the baseline. It is obvious that the decision of the moef is based on political compulsions and not on ecological considerations. This move of the government will undermine the positive gains that have accrued in the last two decades by implementing the Forest conservation act. This is a retrograde step and needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.
The government's decision will open a Pandora's box. It leaves many questions unanswered. How will the government ascertain whether a particular encroachment was prior or subsequent to 1980? What is the mechanism for verifying the claims of the encroachers? What is the nature of proof that will be required by the regularising authority. Won't this give a fillip to further encroachment in forested areas in the future? These questions must be answered by the moef .
The writer is an environmentalist based in the Nilgiri Hills
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