The people are covered

People's rights over forests are legally unassailable

 
By N C Saxena
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)MARXISTS hold that a capitalist state cannot promote radical reforms in favour of the poor. The nature of state power depends upon the mode of production, and the owners of the means of production, and it is in the interest of these classes that state power is exercised. If this view is accepted in toto, it would be futile to expect the Indian state to promote reforms in the forest sector in favour of the marginalised people -- the forestdwellers and women who, in any case, live in remote areas and have little influence on those in power.

Two counter-arguments can be advanced against the this pessimistic view. First, a pro-people forest policy does not hit the rural elite at all; in fact, it reduces the despotic control of the centralised bureacracy. Hence, such a policy should not attract political impediments, inherent in programmes like land reforms. Second, the Indian political system has always been resilient and responsive to public opinion, which can be built upon without a proletarian revolution being a precondition.

Several environmental battles have been won in the recent past: the scrapping of the "Blue Pine" Project in Bastar, the withdrawal of the Forest Bill of 1980, the cancellation of leases of common lands to a paper mill in Karnataka, etc. This shows that radical restructuring of policies does not require a new constellation of the ruling classes.

There is, therefore, hope that Madhav Gadgil's proposed bill, which is designed to put people's control over forests on a firm legal footing, will receive due attention from the authorities, and they will have 2nd thoughts about the government-sponsored draft of the Forest Act 1994.

The most Draconian provision of the new Act is that village forests cannot be constituted from reserve forests, whereas joint forest management (JFM) cannot be tried in reserve forests. Thus, about 2/3rds of the forest area (45 million ha out of 64 million ha forest is declared reserved) would not be available for management by the people. At the same time, people's rights of entry and usage in reserve forests will now be subject to carrying capacity, and can be "rationalised" by the government. Gadgil's bill, which is a response to the official Act, is a comprehensive piece of legislation for the management of all natural resources in an integrated manner. I will confine my comments only to 2 aspects of the bill -- the legal and the technical.

It is well established now that growing resource scarcity has spurred many communities to protect their disturbed environments, and many such new initiatives are independent of government efforts. The stereotype that community participation is an empty slogan, or can work only in very small areas in exceptional circumstances, or that the rigid stratification of village society in India inhibits the development of institutions representing a common will, appears simplistic and overstretched in the face of positive evidence of community action from diverse agro-ecological zones.

More than 200,000 ha each in Orissa and Bihar, for instance, are under informal protection by forest communities. Only recently has the government staff taken notice of these viable committees, presumably to show progress under JFM to fulfill their targets. Even if it is assumed that the most effective local institutions developed in those small communities where people know each other, it should be remembered that most forests in India are located in the hills, uplands and tribal regions which have small ethnically homogenous communities.

However, it is feared that without tenurial security, such longstanding arrangements will either not get replicated elsewhere, or will get entangled in bureaucratic knots. Hence, Gadgil rightly identifies the need to establish a solid legal base of peoples' control over forests. At present, the legal and organisational framework for joint management is weak and controversial. Although the old rights and privileges of the people continue, such rights often include free access to expensive timber. This breeds corruption, as only the powerful in a village are able to get free supplies of trees like deodar and teak.

Privileges without corresponding responsibilities are counter-productive. A large number of new settlers in a village have no rights to forests, simply because their ancestors did not live in the village at the time the forest was settled. They are thus compelled to obtain these illegally. Sometimes, people living several hundred miles away from a forest have rights over that forest -- which they may never have seen! Thus a forest patch does not have a well-defined and recognised user-group, because it admits the rights of the entire population of that region.

This kind of "right-regime", which makes forests open-access lands, is not conducive to successful protection, as rights of contiguous villages protecting forests may come in conflict with those of distant villages that are not involved in protecting it but still have rights. On the whole, the way rights and privileges are implemented is a serious disincentive and setback towards the evolution of sustainable policies in forest management. Therefore, rights on forests should be reviewed in order to put them in harmony with the "care-and-share philosophy", which is the bedrock of sustained forest management.

Another legal problem concerns the status of village communities. Cohesive action can be expected only from communities existing at the hamlet level. These, unfortunately, have no legal and statutory basis, as the law recognises only panchayats, which are multi-village and often political organisations. Village commons have historically and traditionally been part of the village boundary, and can be better protected by the village and not by the panchayat. Where a village common is being protected by members of a single hamlet, incorporating many villages within the authority structure would erode the importance of the smaller group.

Since small user communities may comprise less powerful groups, they may lose authority to the elite if the management becomes a direct adjunct of the panchayat. People living in the hamlet would also be obliged to share forest produce with other communities who may not contribute, in terms of protection, to the same extent. Gadgil rightly recommends legal settlement of forests with hamlets. This would indeed be a massive operation, and would require a great deal of repeated advocacy before being accepted by the political masters.

Technical tangles
While control by the village over its commons is vital, this alone may not be sufficient for the sustained development of forests. Gadgil's bill recognises the importance of silvicultural issues, and argues that well-stocked forests should get technological treatment different from areas of relatively low forest cover. While the former should be exploited for gathering of non-timber products only -- so that biodiversity and crown cover is maintained -- degraded forests close to habitation should rely more on the plantation of shrubs, bushes and grasses to satisfy the people's needs.

For instance, forest departments' management of sal seems to be for timber alone, and hence only one shoot is allowed to grow. Since sal is an excellent coppice, forests and hills close to a village should be managed to maximise the biomass, with plentiful shoots, which can be pruned occasionally to produce fuelwood, besides giving sal leaves. On degraded forest lands, if plantation is required, one should change the nature of species from commercial to usufruct-based trees. These should be supplemented with grasses, legumes, shrubs and bushes to yield fuelwood and fodder in the shortest possible time.

An immediate identification of quick-growing shrubs with high calorific value, retaining them in the forest for fuel, the development of pastures, the building up of massive fuelwood plantations around centres of high consumption, and encouraging silviculturally sensible exploitation of fuelwood species, would also be important components of the new policy. This would strengthen the tribals' access to forests, and benefits would be directly appropriated by them. Unlike commercial timber species, relatively low value non-rotational trees for recurrent products would not attract the malign attention of powerful panchayat leaders and smugglers.

Foreign experts who advise the Indian government and the donor agencies because of their training and experience, look upon trees as timber to be eventually felled. The traditional Indian way of looking at trees has, however, been different. As opposed to trees for timber, Indian villages have for centuries depended on trees for their livelihood. There has been little felling. Instead, trees have been valued for the intermediate products they provide, which sustain and secure the livelihoods of the people.

"Scientific" forestry should, therefore, mean that wild fruits, nuts, grasses, leaves and twigs become the main intended products from forest lands and timber a byproduct from large trees like mahua and sal. The reverse has been the policy for the past century. Although, after the advent of the new forest policy in 1988, there has been some effort to involve forest communities in management, no thought has been given to make necessary changes in the technology which would be suitable to achieve the changed objectives. I am glad that Gadgil has given technology the importance that it deserves.

--- N C Saxena is the director, Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration .

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