Lip service

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Lip service

Down to EarthA good forest officer is at a premium today. Mere theoretical training is not enough; officers need grooming. The culture of grooming is absent and hence there is a vacuum of leadership in the service. We need to create a meritocracy in IFS
Former inspector general of forests, now on deputation
Down to EarthI was responsible for the Tree Preservation Act. Now, I regret it. A person who has planted a tree should have the freedom to fell it. This is like the Rent Control Act which saw to it that nobody invested in raising buildings for renting out
Retired IFS officer
If IFS does not plan its future, it won't have one

The National Forest Policy is a study in policymaking and non-implementation. Twenty years after it was released, there has been no progress on most of what it called for--increasing forest cover to 33 per cent of total land, increasing productivity of forests, social forestry programmes to meet fuelwood demand, ensuring diversion of forestland is accompanied by payment for compensatory afforestation.

The preferred way to increase forest cover for the state forest departments is plantations. While plantations are good for getting timber, they do not a forest make, biodiversity being the obvious absence. Neverthelesss, the departments count plantations as forests. "Don't call them a forest. They are not. Call them welfare schemes to meet fuelwood needs," said Sen.

The demand for fuelwood was to be met by social forestry schemes like jfm (Joint Forest Management) which were to also restore degraded forests. The programme has not fared well, the common complaint being the forest department's recalcitrance in recognizing people's rights in management and benefit sharing. Communities do not get their share of the profits from timber harvests. The National Forest Commission recommends foresters need sociology training to understand people's rights and needs. Millions of forest dwellers have not had their rights recognized, and yet mining industry gets land with ease.

In 2003 and 2004, industry got 100,000 hectares of forestland diverted. While forests have got depleted, money collected in the name of compensatory afforestation has accumulated. Under the Forest Conservation Act, a project that diverts forestland has to pay for afforestation to make up for the loss. In 2000, a petition filed in the omnibus forest case brought to the court's attention the compensatory afforestation funds lying unused. There were cases of states charging industry for compensatory afforestation and not even collecting the money from the industry. The court directed the Union ministry of environment and forests to gather all the funds and place them in a central fund which would be monitored and disbursed by a Central body, the Compensatory Afforestation and Management Planning Authority. This was to be created by November 2002. It is yet to be formed.

The policy objectives cannot be achieved if the service does not move beyond its timber obsession. The service badly needs to create a working relationship with communities living in and around forests. Conservationists as well as community rights activists feel the service needs to decentralize some control over forest resources and management--and acquire more knowledge. Many ifs officials recognize the need for these changes, although grudgingly--but this gets lost in the din and clamour for more money, better promotions, more autonomy.

"The service has the resources and it can develop the necessary capability to achieve its mandate," said Kanchi Kohli of the conservationist non-profit Kalpavriksh. "It has to because the alternative would be too grim to contemplate. It will take a change in thought, a change in mindset. The bureaucracy needs to change and at present that is not happening."

Rapid loss of forest cover has made it imperative to protect what is left and to regenerate some of what has been lost. This is needed not just for mitigating climate change but also ensuring clean water and livelihood for a substantial part of India's population. In the 80 pages of the National Forest Commission's recommendations is the call for specialization in wildlife and forestry within the service; the need to involve the private sector in plantations for timber; better training of the forest service; a greater focus on marine biodiversity conservation; the need for ecological research within the forest service; and equal rights of forest department and community in jfm.

The commission, though, was appointed by the ministry--not created under a law, and not even approved by the cabinet. This means its recommendations are not binding on any agency. This reflects the importance given to the overhaul of the forestry sector.

With a booming economy and population, pressure on India's forestland will only increase. How the Indian Forest Service reacts will determine its future--and, more critically, that of India's forests.

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