Whose forest is it, anyway?

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

IN THE face of mounting public criticism of the Union ministry of environment and forests' draft Forest Bill, environment minister Kamal Nath's quick sidestep to dismiss the document as a "non-paper" is nothing if not adroit strategy. Only this move could have saved his "green" ministry the embarrassment of getting caught in the act of clandestinely pushing through a draft with Draconian measures against forest users.

The draft Bill, which seeks to revise the Indian Forest Act of 1927, a gooey residue of the colonial forest administration, is even more regressive because it proposes to expand the forest bureaucracy's jurisdiction of extra-ordinary omission and commission.

History has repeatedly sent pointers for the need to develop community-based natural resource management systems. The state's takeover of forests by the British to rake in revenue and profit had greatly disrupted the livelihood of tribals and others dependent on forests. The historical canvas is etched with the forest satyagraha of the '40s in the tribal belt, the raiding of forests by enraged tribals to meet their basic needs, and violent clashes with foresters. Forests disappeared rapidly even as laws alienated people from the jungles.

Instead of learning from the past, the forest bureaucracy is bent upon cutting the branch it is straddling, but with a difference. This time, it wants to ensure that its charter of power is endorsed by the people. In the section on village forests in the draft Bill, for instance, the community representatives have been assigned a consultative role in preparing the management plan. But the draft rules that the forest department will decide how much can be taken out of the forests and the villagers will have to restrict their usage to the prescribed limit.

Legal reforms may come to nought if the official attitude continues to cling to visions of a regulatory regime. Officials must recognise that their own pandering to the concept of joint forest management (JFM) to bolster peoples' initiative in protecting forests is a tacit admission of the fact that forests cannot be saved without the community's support.

The successful cases of participatory management in India, such as in Sukhomajri in Haryana, have proved that community management succeeds only when people are armed with greater control to build up democratic institutions at the local level to ensure a rational use of forests and an equitable distribution of the benefits.

JFM cannot work in wildlife preserves where laws do not allow the extraction of forest produce -- as in Madhya Pradesh -- as an incentive to the people. This approach to conservation has only added to the misery of those living in and around national parks.

Critics find the bullheaded bureaucratic resistance to devolving power to the local bodies even more puzzling because the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution has already provided the Constitutional mandate for decentralisation.

Foresters may continue to rampage down the path of accruing power unless an effective campaign can be built up outside the government to waylay them. The nationwide campaign lodged by NGOs against the draft, though commendable, needs to be strengthened further to mount pressure on the issue. But perceptions oscillating between urban middle class concern for conservation, and grassroots concern for peoples' survival and rights, have blurred the focus of the NGO movement.

Faced with official conservatism and a crosseyed NGO movement, popular discontent is seeking political articulation in some areas. Already, the political representatives of regions in the grip of strong autonomy movements and still rich in forests, like Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, have targeted the forest laws, such as the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which vests all decisions on forest-land use with the Union government.

It will be the ultimate disgrace for the forest bureaucracy if the Gujjar tribals who are being chased out of the Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh's hills succeed in wresting political control -- as they intend to do -- by contesting the elections.

Also, economic factors may force the officials to accept the people's inclusion in forest management. The participatory methods may bail them out of the current budgetary crunch and attract more external aid. Aid agencies like the World Bank, increasingly sensitive to criticism of the forestry projects the world over as being anti-people, are making participatory principles conditional to their aid. The donor agencies have also been motivated by the fact that community participation keeps the project cost low as it substitutes large investments in administrative paraphernalia for protection.

The outcry for community empowerment is now a global trend. Countries in south and southeast Asia and Central America are already in the process of discarding the vestiges of colonial rule in favour of grassroots concerns and conditions. It would be wise for the Indian bureaucracy to abdicate gracefully before popular unrest dumps them off their thrones.

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