Even uith the United Nations General Assembly Special Session to held in New Yorkjust two weeksfirom now, the Union minister for environment and forest, SAIFUDDiN SOZ, tells SUPRIYA AKERKAR that the government is neitherfor a glqbalforest convention nor against it
The national forest policies of 1952 and 1988 stated that one-third of India's land should be under forest cover. But it is much less than that. Is your government taking any steps to change this?
Forest policies must change. In recent years, the weaknesses of these policies have become obvious. We have lost forest cover in a big way and it should be a matter of concern that we have less than 12 per cent of forest cover which can be called dense forest. Although we say that our forest area is 23 per cent, and figures indicate only 19 per cent forest cover. This is also degraded partly and we are left with slightly more than I I per cent area as dense forest. So it is a alarming situation. There are certain areas in the Northeast where forest cover was lost. But now forests are being restored. The Supreme Court is taking action on this.
We hear that you were not happy with the orders of the Supreme Court especially the ban on the felling of trees in forest areas.
Where did you hear this?
We heard that you were for autonomy of the states in this matter.
The order of the Supreme Court came as a shot in the arm because felling of trees stopped to a reasonable extent. But that order was so comprehensive and its implications were so very widespread, that even the transportation of wood was not permissible. There was difficulty for the people, but subsequently the Supreme Court gave some relief But the order itself served as a great warning to the people that we could not afford to lose any further forest cover. So we are now taking steps for forest conservation and afforestation and all that. That process is on and the reform for forest policy is also on.
Can you elaborate on the reforms?
No, at the moment I can't elaborate. This is in the pipeline. But my perception is that, one, we must make a concerted effort to get 33 per cent of land under forests and improve our forest cover. Second, in the forest policies, we must provide for relief and gains for the communities living close to the forest. We can't deny the benefits of the forest to the tribals and the poor living close to them. They cannot be left high and dry. The third element of this policy has to be that we should make people aware that the forests belong to communities living close to them. Townsfolk have been exploiting the tribals and forest communities as truck loads of timber come to the towns. The tribals and poor people are not allowed to take benefits. So we should give to them what belongs to them. And we shall use them to protect the forests.
If there is such strong emphasis by your government on people and their well being, especially the forest , dwelling communities then, why has your government agreed to the forest convention, which is being proposed internationally.
We have not accepted the convention.
Your officials have told me that they are not opposed to the convention.
No, we have not accepted the convention. We shall take our time, we shall, first of all, update our policy. The convention is different... I have yet to apply my mind on that forest convention... I have to see... we are not accepting the international norms set up in the convention, before understanding our own situation.
Your forest officials have told me very clearly that they are not opposed to the convention.
No, we have not accepted it.
In Rio, there was a very clear stand by India on the issue; we opposed this convention. We are not supporting the convention since then. Who told you that we are supporting the convention?
Your joint secretary who attended the fourth session of the inter governmental panel on forests (IPF) held in February 1997 and the later meetings to discuss the forest convention, told me that, "We are not opposed to the forest.
convention"; and so did another senior official from ministry of environment and forests.
Nirmal Andrews told you we are not opposed to that (convention), but we are not supporting that (convention) also. Forest convention, we are not accepting. I will give my pointed attention to under- standing that, it will be subservient to the forest policy to be updated.
In the document prepared for the commission on sustainable development (CSD) in the last IPF meeting held in February 1997, the G-77 proposal (including India) has accepted the convention. Only the details are to be worked out. The details will take their own course. So why has the Indian government changed its stance from 1992 in Rio. India was then the leader of the South in opposing it.
No. We have not supported it since. It is under examination now. We cannot avoid taking a decision in the future. Before we participate in the UN meeting, we shall have taken a decision. You will be leading the delegation to UNGASS (United Nations General Assembly Special Session to be held from June 23, 1997 in New York).
On forest convention, we shall have to make up our minds, but I don't think we can accept it. There is some difficulty. But we must, within our available resources do something spectacular to protect forests, to conserve forests, take measures to restore the forest cover. That is the main job. So before doing that, taking this convention on our head is not possible.
You have been emphasising that people around the forest should be given On first benefit.
Yes, I gave you three contours of my dunking.
Would you be able to convince the forest bureaucracy who says that we are not opposed to the forest convention?
1@1 I can tell you that the bureaucracy will have to fall in line with me because politics is the instrument of change... there has'to be a clear thinking on this yet, ...I have to have discussions. I will have a foresters conference, people who have retired with a lot of experience. I will sit with them and understand. But we shall not go to New York with an empty mind. We shall have taken a decision here, and then go there.
You will be engaging into a conference with your own forest officials, would it not be necessary to consult the NGOs on this?
NGOS... I have opened my doors and windows.
But what about formally inviting them for this particular issue?
Who are the NGOS which can be invited for this?
There are several NGOs working on environment issues.
Environment is different. Who are distinctly working on forests?
Various NGOs are working on forest issues at various levels, some are working on policy issues, some are working at the grassroots level.
I will be calling the NGOs also... I will organise that, don't worry.
There has been no debate in parliament on this.
I will be going to them on the new forest policy, but it will take time.
No. sir a debate especially on this convention. After all this is a matter of national Importance.
There is no need of making a statement in parliament on the forest convention. As and when we accept that, that is, if we accept that, I will take the parliament in confidence. Then it will go to the cabinet. But we are not bound to do it. As for updating the forest policy, we will take measures, it is in the pipeline.
I am not talking about whether it is needed legally. But about involving all the democratically elected candidates as the forest convention is an Issue of national importance.
That will be done. You see, at the end, parliament will be taken into confidence. The nation will be taken into confidence, through parliament of India, through media and others. Don't worry. We have not accepted the convention and there is no hurry to accept it. it will remain under scrutiny.
But what can be done sd late? What can we do novy since the final document has gone for ratification to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. The last opportunity to make any changes in the document (on forest convention) was in February (the last IPF meeting).
And it is in that document that India's delegation has...
We are not accepting it. No, sir. The G-77 and India have said in the document sent to the UN that they are not opposed to the convention, but that the details have to be worked out. This is what we are worried about.
Then how can you say that we are not opposing it? We say, we are not opposed to it, but we are not accepting it. We shall take time. And we shall take reasonable time. We cannot also annoy the international community. They are sensitive, the developed world. Without quarreling with them, we are merely telling them that we have not yet made up our mind, but we are not opposed to it. But that doesn't mean that we are accepting it.
One of the allegations made by the opposition parties Is that Janata Dal and National Front only make big promises but don't do anything. Your manifestoes (1990 and 1996) talk about people-friendly and pro-forest dwellers environmental policies, but your actions are different. For example, when Maneka Gandhi was the environment minister, the wildlife act was amended and all livelihood activities within the national parks were stopped, which meant that even traditional fishing rights of the local communities were stopped. And today in Pench National Park (in Madhya Pradesh) and several other national parks, thousands, dependent upon them for fishing, are facing livelihood problem. So the actual action taken in 1990 was anti-people and anti-tribal. And now, again in 1997, your words and actions are different. As in the example of the Forest Convention. The final document on the forest convention has already gone before the UN. Why has the Indian delegation which went for meetings to the negotiations on the forest convention not said very categorically, "We are committed to the interest of our forest dwellers. (The forest convention would mean subjecting our forests to supranational governance, and dis- placement of their rights to forests.) So we are opposed to this convention." These are our questions. There are promises from your party, but where is the action?
No, no, forest policies are undergoing a change. The rights of the tribals and poor people, as far as I know, to use forest produce, is nearly their fundamental right. Certain things might have gone wrong then but we are changing the forest policy. '
Your manifesto stated that tribals will not be displaced without their consent. But several development projects are displacing them.
We shall not play with their rights. We shall protect the tribals, I can tell you that.
Some time ago there was the Narmada controversy. The Deve Gowda ministry had agreed to increase the height of the Narmada dam, which meant many more villages would be submerged. Because of such projects, tribals are being displaced. However, nobody is taking their consent, despite your partys manifesto.
Manifesto is a comprehensive broad basic document. Within its parameters, whatever needs to be done will be done. The rest, I will see in the forest policy.
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