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Forest paradox

To give forest dwellers their due rights, forest governance must go beyond the environment and include the communities at stake

By Madhulika Nag
Published: Monday 15 December 2014

Democratizing Forest Governance In India Edited by Sharachandra Lele and Ajit Menon Oxford University Press | Rs 495

imageFORESTS IN India are the sites of both conflict, and cultural diversity and biodiversity. The conflicts stem from injustice dating back to colonial times. Huge tracts of forests, inhabited by culturally diverse communities, were arrogated by the colonial rulers. Later, the independent Indian state displayed a paradox. While democracy has reached agrarian communities—all its limitations notwithstanding—the Indian state seems to have reserved its worst for forest dwellers. Post-independent India failed to review the colonial forest policy. Activists argue that the state continued with the policies of appropriation of the commons for ruthless commercial exploitation and that state-community conflicts over forests and forestland have intensified manifold. Policies of exclusionary conservation initiated in the 1970s compounded the survival crisis of forest-dwelling communities.

The failure to extend democracy to these people has exposed the Indian state to protests at the grassroots level—and to Maoist militancy in recent times. In the 1990s, the government embarked on the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme, largely as a response to grassroots protests. The programme was a misnomer. It rarely made forest dwellers stakeholders in forest governance. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 has the potential to correct historical injustices. But there are indications that the new government intends to dilute the Act. At the same time, conflicts in forests have intensified. Forests today are at the crossroads of corporate avarice, state coercion, Maoist militancy and assertion by grassroots movements. Forests are also subject of judicial intervention.

The collection of essays under review is thus very timely. Democratizing Forest Governance in India brings together essays by activists, conservationists and academics. The volume also plugs a gap. There have been works on aspects of forest governance—wildlife management, for instance, or forest management programmes, or biodiversity conservation. But forest governance today also demands scrutiny from ecological, policymaking and sociological perspectives. This is what the book sets out to do.

The editors, Sharachandra Lele and Ajit Menon, set the tone by asking a seemingly innocuous question: what is a forest? They try to look at the definition from a historical perspective—the debates in colonial times. They also take into account a judicial perspective—the fallouts of the Godhavarman case, which has guided the Supreme Court’s intervention in forest-related issues since 1995—as well as a sociological perspective. These viewpoints are important. Very often forests are conflated with their environmental benefits. But forests are also sites of social, political, cultural and economic processes. Their analysis provides a richer understanding of forest governance. The endeavour fits in with the volume’s agenda of “democratising forest governance”.

The essays take up diverse aspects: correcting historical wrongs, programmes like JFM, the Forest Rights Act and the Godhavarman case. They look at forests from the perspectives of different stakeholders, including forest dwellers, pastoralists and shifting cultivators in the Northeast.

In a significant essay, “Undoing historical injustice, reclaiming citizenship rights and democratic forest governance”, tribal rights activist MadhuSarin argues how the Forest Rights Act, 2006, could be a game changer in India’s forestry regime. Sarin shows that the creation of a centralised forest department and centralised forest laws undermined community control over forests. She writes that the Forest Rights Act is unique in making “wildlife authorities accountable for decisions pertaining to relocation of communities in protected areas”. Such relocations are amongst the major causes of conflict between forest authorities and forest dwellers.

Dhrupad Choudhury’s essay, “The Forest Rights Act, Northeast India and shifting cultivators”, offers a different perspective. Choudhury argues that the Forest Rights Act has ignored the rights of shifting cultivators and this is one reason why there is no enthusiasm in the Northeast for this Act. He shows how traditional village councils in the Northeast regulated shifting cultivation, ensuring that the practice became sustainable. But state and Central legislation favoured sedentary cultivation, and the Forest Rights Act has not rectified it.

Academics Prakash Kashwan and Viren Lobo offer another critique of the Forest Rights Act. They point out that both the Act and the advocates of the rights of forest dwellers homogenise community and community rights. The Act, they argue, does not address intra-community inequality. In their essay, “Of rights and regeneration”, they observe that social movements can work towards making the Forest Rights Act more equitable by critiquing institutions and practices that foster intra-community inequality.

Nitin Rai, ecologist with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, raises an important point in his essay, “Views from the Podu”, and that is forest management has not kept pace with researches in ecology and conservation. Studies are now repudiating the notion of nature as wild, stable and pristine. What were earlier thought to be pristine forests with high levels of biodiversity have now been shown to be inhabited, farmed and burnt by humans. Ecologists acknowledge that the abundance of species in many biodiverse areas owes a lot to human intervention. Wildlife management is, however, yet to acknowledge this.

This draws the reviewer to her only quibble. The agenda for democratising forest governance should include democratising the forest bureaucracy, which we know is a relic of colonial times. But we also know that every once in a while, a forest official or a forest department transcends its authoritarian moorings. Tana Tapi of the Arunachal forest department, for instance. Readers of this magazine will recollect how Tapi has involved the local community in his state in anti-poaching measures. Do efforts like that of the Arunachal forest officer have the potential of reforming the forest service itself?

This question, I think, goes with this volume’s agenda of democratising forest governance in all its dimensions. A broad view, such as the one offered here, has acquired much significance as forests become one of the flash points in the “development versus environment” debate in India.

Madhulika Nag is an independent researcher

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