Time to act

The Madhya Pradesh government has recently sent a letter to the Prime Minister seeking changes in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The principal secretary, forests, Madhya Pradesh government, Sudeep Banerjee , spoke to Ajit Chak to explain what prompted the move

By Mario
Published: Thursday 15 February 2001

Why have you asked for changes in the Forest (Conservation) Act?
Actually the entire Forest (Conservation) Act needs to be reviewed with a wider perspective. The overall concept of forest conservation should be given a dynamism so that it changes with the needs of the people. The term forest has a large connotation which also includes the people living in the forests and who depend on the forest produce for their living. This is recognised by the National Forest Policy. But the development of the people in the forest area has never been taken into consideration.

Why do you think so?
The present rules, as embodied in the act, preempt this. For every development work, like constructing a school or a hospital on forestland, we have to seek the Union government's permission and clearance.

The people living in the vicinity of forestland are, therefore, lesser citizens when compared to others of this country. Because of these rules, clearance of every proposal takes a convoluted route and consequently a longer time. And while we are lost in procedures, the funds earmarked for the development projects from year to year remain unutilised.

Why is the act causing so much concern in Madhya Pradesh?
Forest villages are colonial concepts and in Madhya Pradesh, there are a number of these villages. For centuries, we have taken people inside the forests for forest work where they lived in villages and then we have been converting these forest villages into revenue villages. But because of the Forest (Conservation) Act, that process has been stopped and the villages remain forest villages, thus hampering development.

So now you have a problem of human rights. You have two sets of citizens in the state. One, those who live in the revenue villages and second, those who live in forest villages. We have been consistently saying that these forest villages should also be recognised as normal revenue villages. But the Government of India does not seem to agree to the concept.

The most critical part is that, going by the Supreme Court ruling, all those forest villages that were converted to revenue villages prior to 1980, when the Act came into being, will be reconverted to forest villages again. Thus, the people who had settled in forestland and were practising agriculture in that land prior to 1980 will be affected by the Forest (Conservation) Act.

Such an interpretation of the act will affect Madhya Pradesh and the newly formed Chhatisgarh state very badly. I think the act needs to be reviewed for the sake of development of the forest people. Our view is that the act should not cover pre-1980 cases at all.

But are all states affected by the Forest (Conservation) Act?
All states are not affected in the same way. Ironically, the act is applied with the same rigour in a state having one or two per cent forest cover like Haryana and that with a 36 per cent forest cover like Madhya Pradesh or a state like Chhatisgarh which has a 47 per cent of forest cover. You can simply do nothing here. Similarly, a district like Bastar, which is arguably one of the most remote and backward areas and is in dire need of development, has a 60 per cent forest cover. This could mean that no development work could be carried out here without permission from the Centre.

Hence, the act needs to be revised so that the decision-making powers, which are concentrated in the Union government, could be delegated to the state governments. After all, the work will ultimately be handled by a government official, be it state or central, or by some forest officials. So whether it is being handled by the state government or the central government does not really matter since the officials are going to act by the statute and not be influenced by the respective governments. Moreover, a state government employee may well be deputed to the Union government and he might find himself handling the case. The point is such discrimination between governments in deciding on development works serves no purpose .

Rather than deciding their rights at the Union government level, it would be better if there was a state-level board to decide things.

Secondly, forest products have always been an important source of food for the communities that live there. Certainly, forest conservation is important and preserving bio-diversity should be the topmost agenda. But under the act, if one plans to grow some horticultural plants in the forests where nothing else grows, it is not permissible. Such a policy is absurd and it affects conservation efforts in turn.

Finally, states like Madhya Pradesh and now more of Chhatisgarh will suffer from underdevelopment unless the Forest (Conservation) Act is made more liberal. Any kind of development process needs permission under the act. One more concern is that there is enormous amount of natural resources inside the forest area that will go untapped.

Is there a solution?
There must be a comprehensive national policy where both the issues of development and conservation are taken into consideration. For example, a railway line to Bastar, which is so important for the development of that area, is not happening because of the Forest (Conservation) Act.

But in the process, the environment somewhere else will be affected because the rail line will be constructed elsewhere for which materials are being transported from far off areas. This, in turn, will add to more fuel consumption and increases overhead costs.

So all this should be considered together and a policy formulated. The present act has a very narrow scope. So Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh has written to the Prime Minister for a review of the act.

We have not received any reply to it yet. But we would certainly like them to encourage a nationwide debate and a discussion on the matter. We also want to involve people and to discuss the experiences of the last 20 years on the implementation of this act.

Do you want to de-notify any forests in Madhya Pradesh?
We are not de-notifying reserve forest or any other forest. The denotification has to be done under the Forest (Conservation) Act and for that permis-sion from the Union Government is required.

Regarding the Wildlife Conservation Act, preliminary notifications had been issued to turn certain areas into wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and protected areas. But the decisions to turn these into protected areas had been taken 25 to 30 years back. Since then we have not issued any notifications.

The moment you issue a notification several problems crop up for the communities living in those areas. No minor forest produce can be collected, no schools, roads or electricity lines can be made, and no development work can come up.

For the last 20 to 30 years, these communities are living without these perquisites of development. We must consider whether we have the money to pay compensation to these deprived people, whether the Union government can contribute the amount or whether the state government should do it. Otherwise, we should cancel the notification because it would be a violation of human rights whereby you are creating two classes of citizens in the country. For instance, if you declare the areas as proposed national park, then no development projects will come up in that area. But at the same time the people who lose out on development must be compensated. If one loses a house, you must compensate him, proper rehabilitation should take place. This has not taken place over the last 20 to 30 years.

So what do you plan to do?
Madhya Pradesh has constituted a cabinet subcommittee to go into these issues on notifying parks and sanctuaries, on ways to acquire resources, on formalisation of boundaries and thirdly, considering whether there are any further areas which can be declared as new national parks and sanctuaries.

We want to create a nation-wide consensus within the government, the civil societies and the groups concerned. The central and the state government as well as the civil society should participate to sort out the problems.

How do you propose to manage your forests?
Forests can be managed through decentralised people's participation. This is the only way that forests stand to gain. Wherever joint forest management committees are working, the forests are better protected. One can make out the differences between the forests that have joint forest management committees and those that don't. Certainly the activities of anti-social elements and the timber smugglers have reduced because of these committees. In tribal areas, the local people grow trees in their own private land. Trees like sal ( Shorea robusta) and teak are grown that have a value of Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh. They can cut and sell the timber after taking permission from the forester or the collector. Here they get exploited at times. But there are no large-scale felling of trees or any mafia operation. Cases of violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act regarding permission on construction work are now being investigated by the Supreme Court and other agencies.

How successful has the Joint Forest Management programme in your state actually been?
We think joint forest management is the answer to our problems. In some places, it has produced marvelous results, while in some, the results haven't been so spectacular. But all in all, it is an effort that we must support through financial backing and mobilising people.

At some places, it has not been possible for us to support joint forest management committees in the state. There are committees operating in places like Barwani, Khargoan, where the wood stock or the natural resources on the forestland is so low that the waiting period for the community is substantially longer. To tackle such situations, we need funds from outside. These are the kind of challenges we must address.

It is only because joint forest management has done so well that we are speaking of community forest management now.

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