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FOR some time now, international funding agencies have been at pains to show that they are concerned about the environmental and social aspects of the policies they promote. Very often, such concern is expressed through velvet buzzwords used to cloak the sharp interventions they thrust upon the beneficiaries of their munificence. "Participation" is the latest of these.
The term has become especially fashionable in the forestry sector, in which financial assistance received by India from multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as aid agencies established by individual countries such as UK's Overseas Development Agency and the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund of Japan has increased steadily during the '90s. The total foreign aid currently for forestry in India is around $140 million per year. By 1997, it will go up to $250 million.
The country's forestry establishment, which, like bureaucracies across the world, never tires of arguing that its self-acclaimed plans are often frustrated only for want of funds, has found such largesse so welcome that it has shown eager willingness to be preached about the value and need for public participation in its projects. Both, the new sensibilities of the donors, as well as the attentiveness that such spiel is finding from Indian foresters, are replete with ironies.
Foremost among these is the fact the forestry establishment has always presented deaf ears to entreaties consistently made by several Indian NGOs and voluntary agencies seeking active participatory roles in the forest management programmes of the government, for the innumerable forest communities in the country. Indeed, given this longstanding demand, it would seem naturally correct to endorse the donors' push for participatory forest management.
But most of the projects in which the donors would like to see popular participation -- tree plantations, biodiversity conservation projects safe from human encroachments and the like -- are precisely those which have led to severe problems for the millions of Indians whose lives and livelihoods are crucially dependant on free access to forests around them. In the name of scientific forest management, this right has been eroded consistently, the process accentuating with the growth of the forestry sector in the country. Innumerable instances irrevocably prove that this denial has alienated forest-dependent people to the point of turning them into actually predators of the resources, the sustainable use of which is part of their civilisational wisdom and fables.
While the new environmental learning of many of the donors -- of forests as carbon sinks, the scientific and industrial importance of biodiversity, and much else -- has made them very concerned about the wellbeing of the world's forests, there are few signs that they are worried about the rights of forest-dependent people. As long as the second aspect holds true for their scheme for better woods, donors and national agencies will always be guilty of using participation as a loaded word to dress their plans for continued inegalitarian appropriation of fruit from forests, in India and elsewhere.