Green milestone

Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

taking the initiative once again from legislators and executive bodies in safeguarding India's environment, the judiciary has targeted forest management as its current interest. The interim orders of the Supreme Court (sc) regulating tree felling in forest areas, highlight the urgent need to re-examine the ad hoc policies governing our forests. By reinstating the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, which requires prior approval of the Central government for any non-forest activity in forest areas, the sc has asserted the importance of conservation needs over the commercial use of state forests.

Less than 23 per cent of India's lands are recorded as state-owned forests and a large percentage is now in severely degraded condition due to heavy pressures of commercial exploitation that still continue. In 1985, for instance, wood based industries had lobbied with the ministry of environment and forests for captive plantations in state-owned forest lands. Presently, the Madhya Pradesh government is actively pushing for it and has even invited tenders from the industry. The sc ruling has put such nefarious intentions at rest. By declaring mining or running of saw mills in forest areas as non-forest activities, the sc has made all state governments accountable for ad hoc permissions granted for such commercial activities. By making it mandatory to fell trees only according to the Centrally approved working plans of the state government, the sc has put a check to indiscriminate tree felling carried out by the forest departments in state-owned forest lands.

However, the sc initiative can at best act only as a fire-fighting measure to check deforestation. As the apex Court pointed out, it is necessary to have an "in-depth hearing to examine all aspects relating to the National Forest Policy (nfp)". Indeed it is almost nine years since India formulated the revised nfp in 1988. Yet it does not guide the forest bureaucracy's actions and forest management which continues to be arbitrary and shortsighted. In such circumstances, even a prior approval by the Central government need not necessarily lead to a better management or check the increasing deforestation. Forest clearances are often governed by the whims and fancies of the Central government and centre-state politics continue to play a major role. To avoid such situations, any afforestation or tree felling and forest use plan should be made in accordance with the guidelines provided under nfp so that the Central government does not have sweeping and indiscriminate powers for approval. The sc should, therefore, widen the scope of its interim order, when giving its final judgement, by making the nfp as a mandatory governing tool.

nfp can be a good governing mechanism for various reasons. It re-emphasises the national objective of bringing one-third of India's lands under a tree cover, first stated in 1952. Today, this national objective is more of a paper tiger and the government, to date, has not even spelt out a coherent plan to achieve it. Our afforestation strategies have, therefore, lacked direction and our forests are used, abused and controlled according to political pressures and vested interests. nfp, however, provides some practical indicators to achieve this by looking at forest management in a more holistic manner and by balancing various competing demands on forest resources. It gives priority to the needs of rural populations in state-owned forests and calls for their active involvement in its management. It encourages farm forestry on private degraded lands to meet the raw material needs of forest-based industries. In other words, it promotes the use of private lands for growing trees for industrial purposes while state-owned forest lands, managed through community forest management, regenerate genetically diverse forests to meet the survival needs of the rural poor. Such a strategy would help achieve our national objective of bringing 33 per cent of our lands under forest cover -- by encouraging a tree cover on 23 per cent of state forest lands and tree plantations on at least 10 per cent of degraded private lands.

The sc directive to all state governments to constitute an expert committee to file a status report identifying forested areas, degraded forest areas and plantation areas, including those belonging to private persons can give us a clearer picture about the awesome task ahead to meet the national objective. The judicial focus on nfp is, therefore, a welcome intervention and could give a strong anchoring point to this programme. Only such a pressure could perhaps compel India's lethargic government and the wood-based industry to promote farm forestry in a far more effective way by providing adequate incentives to farmers. It could also propel the government to deregulate tree felling on private lands, so as to encourage poor farmers to undertake plantations on their lands. In the past, farm forestry has largely been taken up by rich and better-off farmers and special schemes will have to be initiated if poor farmers are to take up farm forestry on their poor quality lands.

India's forests have been community resources, sustainably used and managed by the rural and tribal communities for several years. It is the bureaucratic stranglehold which has destroyed these sustainable management practices. The country's management plans ought to reflect this reality by clipping the wings of bureaucratic powers and empowering communities to use and manage their forests. This interim order could well pave a path to achieve this in practice.

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