Wealth of forests withheld

Forest departments across the country owe millions of rupees to communities. For 20 years communities toiled under the Joint Forest Management programme in the hope of getting shares in revenue from timber and bamboo sales. As forests mature for harvesting, forest departments apply mathematical tricks to bring down monetary share to almost nothing; a few states do away with giving cash to communities. Disillusioned, people are now abandoning the programme. One school of experts questions carrying on with the programme of joint management when Acts giving communities legal rights to manage forests on their own have come into existence.

Sayantan Bera, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Aparna Pallavi, Ankur Paliwal and Sumana Narayanan travel to West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh respectively—five states with substantial forests under the programme—to find out how joint management of forests has fared


Wealth of forests withheld


Some 40 years ago an experiment began in Arabari forest range of West Bengal that caught the fancy of the nation. The forest authorities roped in the people living in the area in regenerating degraded forests. In return they offered them a share in forest resources and revenue. It worked. Two decades later the Centre adopted the Arabari model to start the Joint Forest Management programme. The response was such that today it involves 25 million people.

West Bengal promised 25 per cent share in profit from the sale of timber after five years of protection, besides free access to grass. In southern parts of the state where forests were most degraded communities joined hands with the forest department. They volunteered to plant saplings, prune plantations and patrol the forests. It was a win-win proposition. The department got help in regenerating forests and the people got fuel wood, fodder and the hope of income from timber sale.

After nearly two decades of labour they have regenerated 400,000 hectares (ha) of sal forests in the state, according to Atanu Raha, principal chief conservator of forests, West Bengal. Their monetary value is immense. Nearly half of the total forest in the state is thus regenerated and ready to be harvested. Time for economic boom? Turned out participants in the joint forest management (JFM) have received just a few hundred rupees each for a year of labour.

Rs 140/member/year

According to the residents of the first village covered under JFM, Sakhishol, in Arabari range in West Midnapore district, each of the 42 families has got Rs 318 every year from timber harvesting. At current daily wage rate, it is two days’ worth of labour of one person. None of the members knows the total revenue the department earned from timber.

The 40 ha of forest patch regenerated by the nearby Jharia village was harvested thrice between 2005 and 2008. Each of the 73 families earned Rs 14,000 for 20 years of protection, that is Rs 700 a year. Or Rs 140 for every person. “The money from the last felling in 2008 is still due to us. We don’t know the exact amount, perhaps Rs 2,000 per member,” says Gopal Mahato, a member of the forest protection committee, a nodal village-level organisation jointly managed with forest officers. The committee is mandatory under JFM. A community’s share is credited to its account which it distributes among participants.

  Ajit Banerjee  
  Ajit Banerjee  
“Why can’t people be given right over timber?”
The former district forest officer in Midnapore, West Bengal, initiated the first JFM experiment in Arabari in 1972. Excerpts from an interview:
  —— Read full interview  
Nearly half a million families in the state have participated in JFM. In southern parts of the state that account for close to 70 per cent of total JFM area, each of the participating families got Rs 1,220 for two decades of protection as per official records.

The forest department has applied a deceptive formula to minimise benefits to communities. It distributed 25 per cent of the net revenue, which is generally two-thirds of the gross, among forest protection committees. The result is the initial euphoria has died down and in many forests under JFM illegal felling has gone up. “There is no legal framework to ensure benefits under JFM reach the people. The forest department has all discretionary powers,” says Ajit Banerjee, the architect of the Arabari experiment (see interview).

Arabari everywhere

Across the country, inadequate benefit sharing from timber and bamboo revenue has weakened the JFM programme. Speaking to Down To Earth, P J Dilip Kumar, director general of forests, had in October last accepted that a third of the forest protection committees are not functioning well. However, the programme remains the country’s sole participatory forestry programme.

When it began in 1990 it marked an evolutionary step in forestry in India. Failure of social forestry programmes during 1970s and 1980s prompted the government to revise its forest policy. It required forest departments to make commercial exploitation of forests secondary to forest management for environmental benefits and for meeting the subsistence needs of the people living in and around forests.

Under JFM communities manage both degraded and good forests with the forest department. For the 170,000 villages in and around the country’s degraded forests, accounting for India’s poorest tribal population, the programme was a big draw. It spread fast and far. Area under JFM grew from seven million ha in 1998 to 22 million ha in 2009. It constitutes 33 per cent of the country’s forestland and is managed by 104,729 forest protection committees (see map). Half the people that participate in JFM belong to Scheduled Tribes and 29 per cent to Scheduled Castes.

imageThe Centre’s spending on the programme has gone up by more than seven times in the last one decade. The Centre alone spent Rs 2,237 crore in the past decade. This is nearly the current annual budget of the Union environment and forests ministry. Since 2002, external donors and bilateral development agencies have pumped in Rs 5,805 crore into programmes that support JFM.

The first official acknowledgement of the programme’s impact on forest cover came in 2003. A meeting of the parliamentary committee on environment and forests observed JFM was primarily responsible for an increase of 3,896 sq km of forest cover. In 2009, the Forest Survey of India noted forests had expanded by nearly five per cent over the preceding decade. “This has been possible because of the participatory schemes like JFM,” says Subhash Chandra, deputy inspector general of forests in the environment ministry.

Despite its contractual nature, there is no organised data on the amount of benefits from timber and bamboo revenue shared with communities. Although 14 states have completed 20 years of JFM and have substantial areas of forest ready for harvesting, only five states—West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh—have started sharing revenues on a noticeable scale, that too in a few districts. Governments have consistently tried to control even minor forest produce.

However, there are unofficial estimates of the benefits supposed to be given to the communities under JFM. The World Bank assesses that the total income from commercial timber, bamboo and non-timber products from the improved forests under JFM will value around US $2 billion (Rs 9,150 crore) in 2020. Each year a JFM committee could earn around Rs 10 lakh in cash and get subsistence benefits worth US $1.1 billion (Rs 5,000 crore) in 2020.

A twist in the context

For long, there was no transparent and independent assessment of JFM by the government. Nor has it engaged with the critics for restructuring the policies of the programme. The Union environment ministry issued the last guidelines on JFM in 2002. Over the years states have introduced their own rules for benefit sharing, reducing people’s share. After a lull of nine years, the programme is again occupying centre stage in policy circles. In January this year, the environment ministry asked the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) in Bhopal to draft new guidelines for JFM. The trigger has been two pieces of legislation— The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006—that recognise communities’ ownership and management rights over forest resources they have been traditionally managing. “Ideally, there comes no question of sharing when the resources belong to the community itself,” says A K Dharni, professor at IIFM who is leading the team drafting the new JFM guidelines. But this is a tricky issue. “You cannot straightaway withdraw the government (from JFM) or there will be a plethora of problems. This needs to be sorted out in the new guidelines,” adds Dharni.

One of the key issues that needs to be addressed is clearing community share in the JFM benefits before the forest policy is overhauled. Down To Earth reporters travelled to the five states that have shared benefits with the people to understand the state of affairs in JFM. Like West Bengal, the other four states have stories of gross inadequacies in benefit sharing.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.