Tricks of diminishing returns

Clever calculations and the great wall of bureaucracy

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Tricks of diminishing returns

The concept of JFM is alluring enough to keep people engaged in conservation for years. But when it comes to sharing the fruits it is a practical joke. For every hundred rupees earned from timber sale a JFM committee usually gets only Rs 17.5 in cash, thanks to the forest department’s talent for developing a benefit-sharing formula guaranteed to deliver skewed results.



Communities’ share is calculated on the net income, not gross, despite a recommendation by an expert group formed by the National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board in 1996 to compute the benefit based on the gross income. Generally, the forest department deducts about 30 per cent as costs incurred in implementing the programme from the gross income. It then deducts 50 per cent of the remaining amount as its share. This sum is further split into half to be distributed as cash (see ‘Unfair formula’).

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Implementation of JFM programmes is expensive. The cost of afforestation, for example, is about Rs 20,000 per ha. Governments claim cost of operation from the harvesting revenue even when it is funded by other agencies. “Nobody knows how the forest departments fix the cost of harvesting. But it is definitely not fair,” says N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council who headed the committee on the Forest Rights Act’s implementation.

In the first decade of JFM, governments faced complaints of skewed benefit sharing. In 2002 the Centre issued a new set of guidelines. These were supposed to be corrective measures but made benefit sharing even more stringent and consequently brought down community share. The new guidelines allowed JFM in good forest but set a different standard for their management, giving the forest department unprecedented control over JFM committees. According to these guidelines, JFM activities in good forests should concentrate on minor forest produce (MFP) and no alteration should be permitted in the department’s working plan except to promote regeneration, development and sustainable harvesting of MFP.

The share of benefit from timber harvest was limited to 20 per cent in both good and degraded forests, which communities could avail of only after 10 years of “satisfactory” work. The Union environment and forests ministry also stifled community say by creating an institution that gives the forest department the power to decide on matters. The Forest Development Agency (FDA) was created to deal with JFM. It is a district-level institution that is treated as a federation of 50-odd JFM committees (JFMCs).

JFM institutions plan forestry activity, while FDA sanctions the money for it. Guidelines for the agreements FDAs sign with JFM institutions state: “The MoU should, inter alia, include the right of FDAs to stop and withdraw funding from a JFMC if the performance of the JFMC is found to be unsatisfactory along with the procedure to be adopted in such cases.” The report of the National Forest Rights Act Committee found that FDAs weakened autonomy of village-level bodies. “FDAs are the federations of JFM committees but the president and the secretary are both forest officers and they act as a conduit for channelling Central funds,” stated the report.

“This was the biggest tragedy with JFM in the past decade,” says Chetan Agarwal a consultant with environmental non-profit Winrock International India. In late 1990s a few states like Himachal Pradesh and Haryana started devolution of power in JFMCs by revising their guidelines to appoint the secretary of the committee from among the village residents. “But the 2002 guidelines played the spoilsport. They required that the secretary of JFMC be from the forest department, and made JFM a funding-driven bureaucratic structure, which defeated the purpose of long-term engagement of forest officials and communities in forest protection,” adds Agarwal.

Another trick that keeps away benefits from community is the absence of working plans for forests under JFM. “Communities always complain we don’t harvest forests to avoid benefit sharing but there is no working plan to do so,” says Aurobindo Behera, principal secretary, forest and environment, Odisha. In 1997, the Supreme Court banned harvesting of forest without a working plan. In most states there has not been any attempt to prepare the working plans. More than 10,000 forest protection committees have forests ready to be harvested. Forest officials say it may take another 10 to 15 years to prepare working plans and get approval from the Union environment ministry.

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