'Community rights must figure in the Forest Bill'

The raging controversy over the regressive draft Forest Bill has dumped the onus of defending it on minister of state for environment and forests Kamal Nath. But surprisingly, in the face of a public outcry, Nath dismisses the draft as "only a piece of paper". In contrast to the official position, he upholds community management and even contemplates recognising unrecorded traditional rights. When he spoke to ANUPAM GOSWAMI and ANUMITA ROYCHOWDHURY, Nath criticised sovereign ownership of forests and committed himself to devolving legislative powers to local bodies.

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

In 1982 popular opposition forced your ministry to take back a draft bill on forests. Why have you now rammed through another bill with similar intent?
Nobody is saying that the 1982 bill is right. If it were, all I needed was to take that to Parliament. It is because we believed that it was not the correct thing that we started this intense, and continuing, dialogue.

We need a forest act appropriate for our times. The Forest act of 1927 was not a grassroots act as forests then were treated as a revenue resource. But now, conditions are different and the old act will have to be amended to meet new concerns.

What should the new law try to achieve?
I think forest laws must encompass joint forest management (JFM) to give space to community participation and acknowledge community rights over forests. We need to break away from the British mode of defining and recording community rights and recognise the wide gamut of undefined and unrecorded rights such as the customary, traditional community rights. The bill must ensure that the human-forest interface is harmonious.

Is the ongoing dialogue helping?
One of the concerns that we will incorporate and yell loudly about is the dynamic concept of JFM and community rights -- essentially how to validate them with legal parlance.

But our experience with JFM in different states has been so diverse that we will have to see how to make it nationwide. Any paper highlighting just Haryana's viewpoint or Madhya Pradesh's viewpoint will not give a national perspective.

Will this bill check the power ambitions of forest officials who are still expanding their jurisdiction?
I look at this in terms of how I am to empower which agency that can hand over the responsibility of forests to panchayats. The process of empowering the panchayats has just started. The real custodian of the forests has to be the panchayat.

Will you facilitate control of panchayats or other local institutions over reserved forests?
Absolutely. We will have to give people "on the spot" powers. We will give them legislative powers because the sovereign ownership of the forests cannot rest with the government minus the people.

Don't you face resistance from the forest bureaucracy when you ask it to share power with the people?
I think that over the years, people have started recognising that a forest can neither be protected by a sentry, nor can it be sovereign state property.

But the document which is being circulated accentuates the role of the MEF in centralising power.

That's not correct. I don't know which piece of paper you mean. But whichever it is we want views from the people, even if they are opposed to ours. That one piece of paper is not the bill.

But the draft which your ministry has prepared...
There is no draft. You can call a piece of paper a draft only when it is ready to be introduced in Parliament.

But there is a draft which is the basis of the discussions.
There will be various pieces of paper on the basis of which we will invite opinions and incorporate the concerns. But to assume that we have reached the final stage is mischievous. I think you are only haggling over a piece of paper.

But States ruled by the opposition have made it very clear that "the piece of paper" indicates a trend towards centralisation.
I cannot comment on their ability to see what does not exist. We certainly want to carry the state governments with us. It is not a state vs centre issue. It is a question of empowering the people. And if vesting the people amounts to abridging control of the Centre and state governments in the interest of forestry, then it must be done.

But the response of the Rajasthan government to the text your ministry had sent for official comment was very adverse.
The Rajasthan government believes that forestry is a Centre-state issue. It has a different philosophy altogether, which has nothing to do with forests. I will make comments from the states public in the next round of meetings, in an open forum.

Congress members of Parliament seem to believe that forest users are important Congress supporters...
There is nothing political in this. I do not think we should politicise the issue.

Nevertheless, there is already a lot of politicisation. Do you think the propaganda is going to favour your image?
I do not look at it like this. I totally oppose this belief that there is anything political about it. I have had meetings with peoples' representatives. And there is a consensus that each one knows the problems of people living in the forests. So I don't think that there is any gap between the perceptions of different parties.

Your pro-people position apart, the official position is regressive on forest-based livelihood systems. Your document is very harsh on shifting cultivation in the northeast.
The issue in the northeast is entirely different -- because of the hill councils, because of jhum, and because of problems which are localised and specific to that region. I have proposed a session in the NE after the current round of elections.

But betraying an anti-people attitude, the Madhya Pradesh government has recently banned the collection of forest produce in sanctuaries and national parks...
This is sheer madness.

How have other state governments responded to the document?
Broadly, there are 2 different sets of comments: a political comment on larger issues and the other on specific points in the text. I want to have a debate on these views with people and NGOs, and see how they react to the views of the state governments.

When do you think you will come up with a draft bill?
It will take another 3-4 months. A lot of information is flowing in. Before we start even preparing a final draft bill, I will want to have one final round of public discussions to deal with the concerns.

I also propose to hold a forest ministers' conference which will also include NGOs and community representatives. People may then want to ask questions, clarifying or amplifying their points of view. Flowing from that meeting, we will prepare a follow-up paper.

How transparent is the system of legislation?
The very fact that you are saying that there are papers and seminars shows that it is transparent enough.

We have a paper for discussion. Let us see what the foresters' point of view is -- what NGOs think and what ideas we can generate.

These papers do not reflect the final thinking of the ministry.

What if the representatives of the people convince you that the thinking as presented by this text is anti-people?
Again you are back to that piece of paper. Are you starting with the presumption that this is the final document?

Are you starting with the assumption that this is the starting point?
The starting point is what I have defined to you. Let us start from that. And then we will develop a draft.

How do you come up with a starting point text which is pro-people?
There is no question of pro-people or anti-people. I have defined the parameters of community governance and now we have to develop it from there. We are to find legal language for those parameters. I will be happy to receive any suggestion. We are trying to talk about a piece of paper which is not a draft. It misleads me as much as it misleads you.

Any paper which falls outside what I have defined is a non-paper.

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