After supporting India's forestry programmes for almost two decades, the World Bank now is moving toward arrogating to itself governance of the country's forests.
Private plantations urged on forest land
LABELLING the government's forest policy, in force since 1988, as monopolistic and inefficient, the World Bank (WB)insists the best solution now would be to encourage private industrial plantations on forest lands.
WB has issued its latest review of the country's forest sector, describing it as an "overview...for Indian policy makers to understand and find ways to address key forestry issues". After supporting 10 forestry projects in the country to the tune of about $500 million -- most of it spent on social forestry and watershed development -- WB now calls unilaterally for a shift in focus to what it calls "sector-wide (involving all aspects of forestry) projects combining policy reforms". In other words, WB wants to get into comprehensive forestry plans.
The WB report says despite the government "monopolising the forestry sector as policy maker, producer, exploiter and provider" it has failed to induce the people to manage and develop forest resources adequately. The cure, WB suggests, is to take such forestry activities as plantations, extension services and research out of the public domain. By denying industry the opportunity to take up plantations on forest lands, WB contends, the government is failing to "replace poor, natural forests with highly productive plantations" that could cut imports and the cost of industrial supplies.
The report, which the WB refers to as India forest sector review paper, was undertaken after the bank recently revised its global forest policy and comes at a time when the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) is trying to get WB to review its forestry strategy. MEF officials say a serious financial crunch has resulted in overdependence at the state level on externally aided schemes. As a result of pressure to find money for forestry projects, state governments have to squeeze other plan schemes in favour of externally aided projects.
With the share of the forestry sector in both the Seventh and Eighth plans allocations staying stagnant at about 1 per cent, state governments have to provide for a large proportion of the forest investments. As a result, an MEF official contends, they have come to depend wholly on external assistance and so "our plan remains only a plan". In some states, for example, externally aided social forestry schemes reportedly account for about 70 per cent of the state forestry budgets. Inspector general of forests A K Mukherjee complains, "The states look upon the WB as the source of resource generation" and it is to correct this bias in plan investment, that MEF has proposed the bank should adopt a comprehensive approach to forestry development.
MEF officials insist there will be no compromise on the nation's forest policy, but they concede the changes proposed by WB are inevitable. So much so, one senior MEF official even describes the WB document as "benign, because it does not say anything different from what we are doing already".
The WB report lists several shortcomings in the official farm forestry programme, including numerous legal restrictions on farmers felling trees on their lands; transporting timber requiring a transit pass, and, in some states, provisions for mandatory sales to the government. These provisions must be modified, WB insists, because they supposedly discourage farmers from taking to farm forestry. The bank also wants to put an end to subsidies on seedlings supplied to farmers because it contends this undermines the quality of seedlings. Criticising restrictions on clear-felling of forests, imposed in 1988 as amendments to the 1980 Forest Conservation Act, the WB reports they have to be modified.
The report stresses the need to promote joint forest management (JFM) because it encourages the local people to participate and protects their wood and grass requirements, but it overlooks complaints by Indian environmentalists that the people are not involved in management decisions in JFM projects. As one environmentalist puts it, "JFM should more appropriately be called a forest-based sharecropping system, in which all management decisions and control remain with the forest department, and the poor are given some sops in the form of grass and some minor forest produce in return for their efforts to protect the forest".
The fact is concepts such as JFM give far less control to villagers than the models developed by well-known Indian environmentalists such as Chandi Prasad Bhatt of the Chipko movement; Vilas Salunke of Pani Panchayat; P R Mishra, initiator of the Sukhomajri project; Rameshwar Prasad of Seed village, and Anna Hazare of Ralegan Siddhi.
Meanwhile, there are doubts whether MEF can resist WB pressure as and when it is exerted. In the ongoing negotiations for Andhra Pradesh's forestry project, the bank insists industrial plantations be allowed on forest lands. This insistence is prompted by a report on the project by Euroconcerns, a Dutch consultancy, which criticised the state forest development corporation (SFDC) for not adequately representing industrial interests. Now, says an SFDC official, "We are identifying some forest lands to raise industrial plantations for which money from WB is likely to come as equity". If it goes through, it would surely be against the spirit of the 1988 forest policy.
The WB report conceded that Uttar Pradesh acted "on WB's recommendation" in removing transit restrictions on 19 tree species in nearly 40 districts. State officials say this was a WB pre-condition for extending beyond 1992 the period of assistance for national social forestry projects in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
WB's call for a change in the thrust of the forestry policy hinges on two concepts -- community participation and involvement of private industry -- which, unhappily are mutually contradictory. But, given WB's known bias in favour of industry, in the long run community interests are more likely to be left out in the cold. The reason for such a sceptical prediction is WB's track record. The bank has revised its approach to forestry several times in the past (See box), but it has nevertheless been accused of promoting inappropriate afforestation schemes and of hastening deforestation in the world by supporting commercial logging and industrial forestry.
WB's political and economic clout is enormous and though MEF officials are putting up a brave front and saying "It's their document, but we don't have to agree with everything," the principle that finally prevails will probably be that the person who pays the piper, calls the tune.
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