When the state goes forestling

... people know that it is barking up the wrong tree

Published: Monday 31 October 1994

-- INDIAN is well within earshot of the worldwide call for environmetal consciousness. None can doubt its commitment to gest conservation. But here ties the catch. Seen from below, r" conservation measures have occluded the people from it green boardroom. The commoner has lost control over nst resources, and competition with industrial and urban mand for evaporating resources and subsistence needs has d to leapfrogging alienation.

While people cry murder and states clash with the centre wr the forestry cake, a spate of legislations have attempted to primline the Conservation process in general, such as the rAdlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Wildlife (Protection) wndment Act, 1991. The state's modus operandi has been, redictably, gathering all the goodies unto itself. And the onservation of Forests and atural Ecosystems Act, a Union anistry for environment and vests brainchild on the ivil, is the latest entrant into this raconian club.

A cornerstone of the new bill C the concept of "carrying capac.All claims over forest pro- oce will be entertained only after esidering the carrying capac ity I a forest. If the state governent thinks this capacity is being exceeded, it can prevent the ercise of all or any rights. Such provisions are bound to cironscribe the survival of people subsisting on forests.

Regarding reserved and protected forests, the procedures e clear as mud (chapters 11 and 111). Amazingly, people's ;hts have remained static, in flagrant disregard to changing alities. Those rights settled long ago logically require a secbd look, given the increase in population. People are anyway loolling defacto rights, thanks to the greasy palms of forest virds. There is large-scale encroachment on forest land, @ich trespassers have merrily put to the plough. This phewnenOD has been sublimated into a vague formulation: the I will prevent diversion of forest land for "regularisation of Lauthorised occupation", whatever that means.

The bill creates new categories Such as " agro -forests", to constituted where shifting cultivation is being practiced. Private tree-growers will have to register themselves with the district forest officer, All trees and forest produce on private land not registered will be governed by the Tree Authority (38G). Bureaucrats, already flexing your muscles?

In 1988, the national forest policy resolution had stressed the need to adapt forestry measures to local situations and bring people into the fold of forest protection and management. This was directly seen in central and state governments' resolutions on joint forest management (IFM). For once, officialdom had clambered off its high horse and people had a chance - however slim - to claim their own. Enter the bill, cavorting on a higher steed. Not only will the people be thrown off, state governments will have a harder time implementing JFM. The space for JFm had been created by continued opposition to lopsided fore st laws'. Now this experiment is being given the hoof.

The issue of regenerating degraded forests is tackled only through the formation of village forests. Plantation activity, the favourite preoccupation pf state forest departments and its chief fund raiser, remains outside the purview of the bill. On the other hand, one regularly reads of the MEF's intention to hand over degraded forests to industry. Another sellout in the offing? Public opinion seems to exist in a world beyond the process of drafting bills.

The case for fresh legislation in the area of forest conservation is an impeccable one. Popular pressure, and the accommodation it demands from the state apparatus, has led to new laws, reviews and re-enactments since independence. In this regard, forest management has always been a neglected child. The existing law is ludicrously anachronistic, enacted in its present form in 1878, with major additions and some dressage in 1927. Surely, it is time to press for a new one that respects the legitimate requirements of people.

---Ashwini Chhatre is associated with the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

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