Since forest-dependent communities in India are amongst the poorest people, any bottom-up poverty reduction strategy will have to take forest management into account. Madhya Pradesh ( mp ) chief minister Digvijay Singh's letter to the prime minister asking for a review of the Forest Conservation Act ( fca ) has come not a day too soon. The cm 's letter should have, in fact, asked for a review of the entire forest and wildlife management strategy of the country.
Singh points out that the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was a crisis-driven response and today we need a strategic response to reconcile our conservation and development objectives. The current strategy of closing out forests to tribal communities is leading to immense alienation and the rise of extremist movements in forested districts. As he puts it, "Today the extremist Naxalite violence is primarily in the forested districts. The denial of rights to the tribal poor has resulted in their alienation from the mainstream. Before today's Jal Jangal Zamin Hamara slogan becomes an all others keep out slogan tomorrow, public policy needs to be corrected."
mp 's Bastar district today has a strong Naxalite influence, a spread over from the neighbouring forest districts of Andhra Pradesh ( ap ). And it is not just ap and mp which are affected, Singh could have also added that the brigand-in-the-news, Veerappan, is also a product of our forest and wildlife policies. These are policies which have turned the poor into robbers in their own land. On the other hand, the more recent Panchayat Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act promotes greater control of tribal communities over their immediate natural resources.
Getting the forest-dependent communities to manage their natural resources can not only help to improve environmental conservation, but also greatly reduce their poverty. A Bastar tribal, otherwise extremely destitute by all economic standards, often owns a crone of rupees worth of trees. Sustainable harvesting of the forest can give the villagers some Rs 4-5 crore every year. Unfortunately, the forest departments have regulations that allow an extremely tiny part of this wealth to reach the villages. In Joint Forest Management ( jfm) schemes, the stingy forest departments give only 20-25 per cent of the net timber income, the big income, to the communities whose protection has regenerated the forest. As much as 75-80 per cent is kept by the government. Except, of course, in the Naxal-dominated forest districts of Telengana, where the fear of Naxalities forces the government to let tribal communities take the entire income.
It is but human nature that greater the income the poor people will get from their forests, the more they will be concerned about their welfare. Given the dependence of millions of poor people on our forests, instead of protection and exclusion, our forest and wildlife policies cannot, but, be built on sustainable use and participation. Wherever this has been done in India, as in the jfm scheme or mp 's watershed development program, the local communities have done a good job in regenerating degraded forest lands. Instead of highly rigid policies that go on ad nauseum, we need many such innovative efforts and experiments to get our forest management right. For example, we now need to go ahead and involve people even in the protection of reserve forests.
But there will be some dangers in this review exercise, too. We are dealing with a system of governance that has very little ability to make judicious and discerning decisions. As a result, the best way to deal with any problem is to simply ban it. The fca came into being after remote sensing data of the 1970s had shown a remarkable decline of forest cover about one million hectare a year over the decade. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, brought in the fca to stop one problem affecting the forest cover the use of forest lands for non-forest purposes like roads, dams and buildings. Whereas state governments would bring dams and roads to the attention of the Union governments -- activities in which everyone would make big money -- they would neglect the small but important requirements of villagers to build schools, electric poles or bridges over rivulets. As a result, Uttarakhand, the very area which gave birth to the Chipko Andolan saw a Jangal Kato Andolan in the 1980s against the fca .
Under Rajiv Gandhi, the fca was further amended to stop the use of forest lands for establishing plantations by private parties. This was in keeping with the 1987 Forest Policy which said that forests should be managed mainly for the needs of forest-dependent communities and for ecological objectives. Wood-based industry should source its raw material from farmlands. But the amendment left a loophole. These plantations could be undertaken by forest departments. Using this loophole, politicians ranging from former Union environment minister, Kamal Nath, to current Andhra cm , Chandrababu Naidu, have tried to allow access of industrial firms to government forest lands, willfully disregarding the spirit of the official forest policy. There can be no two opinions on the need to review India's forest laws to reduce the alienation of the poor, and the sooner the better, but we will also need considerable transparency in forest management to get a political system which does not use the poor to subserve the rich. Digvijay Singh, who has done a better job than any other cm in involving rural committees in forest management, will thus have to address this challenge too.
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