People's interest in forests is sacrosanct

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

IT WAS nearly a decade ago that the government of India had tried to revise the Indian Forest Act of 1927, a British legacy that brought immense misery to forest-dwellers and has been unable to save the forests. The row that took place over the last revision forced the government to shelve its plans and the proposed bill was withdrawn. The bill was Draconian in many respects and NGOs and tribal MPs had strongly criticised its provisions, which could have affected tribal people. In the draft legislation, the list of offences had increased compared to the 1927 Act and included "gathering forest produce". The list of forest produce specified 36 items like grass, flowers, leaves and branches -- things that tribal people collect for their daily survival. The punishment for infringement of the law and the powers of the forest officers to enforce the law were also enhanced substantially. It is obvious that such a bill would have faced great opposition in Parliament. But it took a group of vigilant NGOs to sound the alarm call.

It is vital that the new draft legislation being circulated among the state governments be made public so that there is an adequate public debate on the subject. Forests are a critical resource for not just the country as whole, but also for millions of poor forest-dwellers. Therefore, the new act must take into account the interests of the people. This is only possible if the proposed legislation is widely discussed and debated.

The 1980s brought forth numerous new experiences in forest management and regeneration. These experiences showed clearly that people's participation in the management of forests has a very beneficial impact. Numerous approaches have emerged, ranging from people's control over forests to joint forest management. It is vital that this type of experimentation is encouraged if forests are not to become a source of growing tension between the state and the people. People's interests in the forest must also be considered sacrosanct to ensure that any other use of the forest incorporates the true cost of using forest resources or of forest land, which the forest industry has been demanding.

It is quite possible that the new legislation will get lost in Centre-State wrangles because the states feel the Union government has restricted their freedom in the use and exploitation of forests. The Union government does not depend on revenue from forests, and so tends to take a more rational and conservationist view of forest management than state governments. Central intervention has, thus, been reasonably positive from the environmental viewpoint.

But the challenge in India is not just to protect forests. It is also to use forests in a rational manner. Experience has shown that centralised laws tend to neglect the interests of the people. The Forest Conservation Act has failed to prevent large dams like Narmada and Tehri because chief ministers personally lobbied with the prime minister to push such large projects. But numerous small projects of interest to the people get held up because nobody is prepared to push them. Not surprisingly, the Forest Conservation Act is strongly disliked in areas like Vidarbha and Uttarakhand, where most land is forest land. Unnecessary zeal to regulate forests through laws and bureaucratic institutions can prove to be counter-productive. Measures to control the exploitation of sandalwood have led to greater smuggling, which now extends to a wide section of the people living in such areas.

This problem of rational utilisation can only be solved through people's involvement in decision-making over and management of forests. It is not clear at all what role the draft legislation gives to the people. A broad popular perspective of forest management is likely to succeed in the years to come as population pressures on forests -- rather than bureaucratic and regulatory measures -- grow. India's rich experience in the last decade in people's involvement should not only inform the country's forest management policies but also provide a beacon light to other countries in the world.

It would be vital also to see whether the draft legislation conforms to the forest management principles the government of India accepted at the Rio conference in 1992. These principles emphasise the importance of community participation. Indeed, all through the conference, minister of state for environment and forests Kamal Nath had emphasised that India's forests belong to its communities. Does the draft legislation also reflect that?

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