Daft National Policy 2018

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 6, June 2018

By Lakshmy Raman and Bittu Sahgal

India will be the global host for World Environment Day, June 5, 2018. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said: “Indian philosophy and lifestyle has long been rooted in the concept of co-existence with nature. We are committed to making Planet Earth a cleaner and greener place.”

It’s true. Indians are truly rooted in an ethos of living in harmony with their land.  There was a time when the Indian subcontinent was carpeted in green… watered by glacial rivers, blessed by rolling hills and productive grasslands, lush rainforests and wave-kissed mangroves. All creatures, great and small, found niches here and thrived. Varied cultures were spawned and people in awe of nature lived by its rules. 

This happy situation has changed. The wondrous green has long-disappeared – plundered and looted first by invaders and colonists and then by those who took freedom as license to outdo the colonisers in the plunder of natural India. Today what little remains is being systematically eroded by a population caught in the crossroads of a development paradigm borrowed from the industrial North that systematically devastated colonies for centuries. 

It is to feed this consumerist nirvana that illogical developmental plans such as the recently-announced Draft National Forest Policy was born. 

India’s natural wealth feeds, clothes and sustains our people in the most democratic way imaginable. Today our government wishes to centralise control of resources including forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and coasts for short-term gains. Already marginalised segments of our population are about to be pauperised by cronies of those in power to the point where the very viability of the subcontinent is at risk.

Going, going, gone

India has already lost most of its primary forests. It’s now the turn of our secondary forests to wither at the hands of planners who are foisting marginal agriculture, toxic industry and inappropriate urban infrastructures where they are likely to do the most harm.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) confirmed in 2016, that we have degraded or lost productivity in roughly 96 million hectares (30 percent of our land mass). Desertification of once-forested areas in Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Jharkhand is alarming. In fact, nine mismanaged states account for 24 per cent of India’s desertification. Satellite mapping of forest degradation in the hill districts of N. C. hills and Karbi Anglong district, in Assam reveals ruthless felling of trees for shifting cultivation. Predictably, we are now reaping a bitter harvest of soil fertility loss, erosion, downstream floods, droughts and siltation.

Unrestrained hunting and clearing of forests is causing the disapperance of species and biodiversity at an alarming rate. Photo courtesy: Shardul Bajikar

The stage of pointing fingers at others is gone. We are all figuratively on a sinking Titanic and rich and poor, north and south, well-intentioned and apathetic… will all go down unless we can wake from our stupor and unite to implement solutions for which we still have a narrow window for success. 

Home truths: We cannot solve our food security ambitions by deforesting India, filling its wetlands, ruining its coastal marine breeding habitats and aggravating the melt-rate of our glaciers. Such misplaced strategies will aggravate the worst impacts of climate change and will destroy our already fragile economy.

Think! India cleared 14,000 sq. km. of forests over the past three decades for agriculture. Another 4,947 sq. km. was destroyed by mining. Defence projects took away 1,549 sq. km. And 1,351 sq. km. were destroyed by hydroelectric projects. 

IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest non-profit, reveals that encroachments alone consumed forests parcels amounting to almost two-thirds the size of Haryana (15,000 sq. km.) and as many as 23,716 industrial projects have gobbled up another 14,000 sq. km. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), mandated to protect and enhance our ecological base gives away something like 25,000 hectares of forests every year for “non-forestry activities”. Punjab has diverted about half of all its forest land since 1980. Simultaneously its now-discredited Green Revolution has bequeathed young Punjabis with lifeless, saline and degraded soils. Even supposedly intelligent states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Goa are busy tearing the very fabric of the Western Ghats from whence virtually all their rivers originate.

Kishor Rithe, President, Satpuda Foundation is both worried and angry: “Forest lands on which both wildlife and local communities have been dependent for centuries are being diverted for ‘developmental’ projects. The new draft National Forest Policy seeks to replace the National Forest Policy of 1988. If this draft policy is finalised in its present form, this will cause further harm to natural landscapes that have sustained us since time immemorial.”

Monoculture Poison

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” – John Muir

Through statistical obfuscation the Indian people have been told that India’s forest cover has increased in the past decade. Nothing could be further from the truth for ‘plantations and commercial monocultures’ do not a forest make! Who, one wonders, is in charge of such mega-shifts of policy? Taking flawed lessons from World Bank-inspired forestry policies, even today our government, against all advice, pushes for plantation of quick-growing tree species on such fragile habitats as river banks, lakes, beaches and even “semi-arid, and desert tracts where grasses and their associated species such as the Great Indian Bustard and the wolf have survived for millennia.

The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 speaks of “low quality and low productivity of India’s natural forests, impacts of climate change, human-wildlife conflict, intensifying water crisis... and the continuously declining investments in the sector.” These are replica justifications borrowed from failed World Bank forestry projects that have devastated the biodiversity across the subcontinent. 

“Public private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests.” The words sound so enticing but these are often exactly what the private players crave – miners, road builders, dam builders and real estate developers who have plundered forest India, and prospered This was recognised by the 1988 forest laws that banned private plantations in all natural forests because: “Natural forests serve as a gene pool resource and help to maintain ecological balance. Such forests will not, therefore, be made available to industries for undertaking plantation or for any other activities.” The very word ‘development’ must be redefined if any of the State Forest Development Corporations are to have any relevance at all.

This current draft is, sadly, a disingenuous attempt to cater to the demands of the paper and pulp and wood-board industries, which are clamouring for these forest lands to be opened up to exploitation. In 2015 vigorous attempts to win get approval to lease degraded forest land timber extraction through ‘competitive bidding’ was strongly opposed by tribal rights activists who rightly claimed this threatened the traditional rights of forest dwellers. The attempt failed because it would have been in violation of the Forest Policy Act of 1988

K. M. Chinnappa and Praveen Bhargav, from Wildlife First, write: “The draft policy is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions that have the potential to balance the competing needs of conservation and development. Furthermore, failed ideas like compensatory afforestation, catchment area treatment and joint forest management have been included in spite of massive evidence on failures documented by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), parliamentary committees and other independent assessments. There is also the addition of a new and dangerous idea called ‘enrichment of dense forests’, which will lead to the tampering of hitherto untouched forests. Where is the need to ‘enrich’ already ‘dense forests’? Such ‘policy prescriptions’ are nothing more than seeds sown in the policy for more corruption-ridden projects to be included in working plans and schemes and certainly not in line with the government’s avowed commitment to good governance.”

Clearly, if we allow the current policy to become law,  not just trees but entire ecosystems, with their associated flora and fauna, so vital to our water and climate security, will be lost.

The Draft National Forest Policy asks for a ‘market-oriented approach embedded in sustainability’ to promote the extraction of forest biomass under the guise of ‘sustainability’. Photo courtesy: Srikrishna Das

The Draft National Forest Policy asks for a ‘market-oriented approach embedded in sustainability’ to promote the extraction of forest biomass under the guise of  ‘sustainability’. Since the 1988 Forest Policy, the Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes, Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) 2006 (FRA) and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996 (PESA), have also been passed. These Acts have been purposefully ignored by the Draft National Forest Policy 2018.

The Forest Rights Act

One of the key reasons that developers in search of quick profit have been able to win political support for their naked ambition has been the failure of wildlife and human rights groups to rally together to fight a common foe. There was a time in the 1980s when Sundarlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte, Valmik Thapar, Belinda Wright and many others signed a joint statement reiterating their resolve to work together to protect the tiger, as a symbol of natural India. Bagh Bachao Bharat Bachao (Save the tiger. Save India) became a rallying cry and much was gained in the process when this unity became obvious to politicians and planners.

Along with the late Smitu Kothari in the late 1990s, Sanctuary worked with drafts and supported the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy that was finally framed in 2003. At the time we all agreed that forest dwellers rights must be recognised as community rights. 

When the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was passed in India on December 18, 2006, it was endorsed as a way to right ‘historical injustices over centuries of land appropriation from original forest dwellers. It offered land grants not exceeding four hectares to forest dwellers. The lead up to the passing of the act was filled with acrimonious debates between those who supported the act and those who were mortified at what the future would hold for wildernesses and wildlife. Positions ranged from those who believed that the government should hand over all forest lands to communities, to those who asked that large parcels of forest lands be left alone to regenerate. Sanctuary articulated time and again at that point that while some areas must remain free from human exploitation, it is equally vital that original forest dwellers not be displaced and that a line be walked that allowed communities to have usufruct rights to forests for sustenance, even as wild spaces that fed our rivers, moderated our climate and sequestered carbon be protected forever.
In the event, moderates on both sides of the line were marginalised through politicians’ sleight of hand. What finally emerged was a Forest Rights Act that saw community rights roundly trumped by individual rights for tribals and even non-tribals who had never been part of any tribal culture for thousands of years.

Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First had this to say: “In India, unlike in the heartland of the vast rain forests of Amazonia, we are not talking of very primitive cultures that are simply living off the land at very low densities of four or five people per 100 sq. km. Rather, we are dealing with entire villages, people with aspirations for permanent agriculture, improving their economic status and raising livestock to generate cash incomes from virtually bottomless markets.”

This is true. But down the decades, tribal communities in India have always been handed a short straw. They are the ones displaced by India’s large dams, mines and mega-projects. They were forced to share scarce space and resources when India pushed refugees from Bangladesh and oustees from hundreds of mega-projects into fragile forests. And with the passage of every year, millions of urban profit seekers continue to exploit tribal communities by offering them cash for the real estate value of their precious land holdings. 

This is what FRA proponents highlight. Neema Pathak of Kalpavriksh writes, “I think the most important step is for both sides to understand the needs of the other. Most importantly for the conservation groups to understand the significance of FRA and the rights and responsibilities of the local people towards their surrounding forests. They would need to appreciate the role these communities are playing in saving forests from being plundered by the corporate and state nexus. They also need to appreciate numerous examples which are now emerging where people are effectively managing forests and also earning appropriate livelihoods. However, this is currently restricted to a few pockets because of the slow implementation of the Act.”

Problems Galore

The intention behind the FRA was to enable marginalised tribal communities to own land they had used for centuries, where they would be able to live with dignity. Soon this was extended to ‘all’ forest dwellers. And, in a move criticised by the staunchest human rights activists working with tribal societies, community rights gave way to individual rights. This unleashed real estate tsunamis across India. The first version of the bill set the cut-off date for settlement of rights as 1980. And over the last few years, despite rejected claims of habitual encroachers egged on by powerful local politicians, no action was taken to free forest lands of new encroachments. 
Tragically, most such lands were quickly deforested and to the dismay of people who were promised a better life in perpetuity, the land was so unsuitable for agriculture that an endless cycle of poverty and dependence on rich landowners became the lot of the exploited poor.

Na rahe baans na baje bansuri (No Bamboo, no flute)

Social activists and wildlife groups must accept that no forest rights can be championed, nor wildlife saved, if the forests at the centre of the tussle vanish. Right now on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, they must find the courage to forge unity by setting aside all other differences. The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 must be stopped in its tracks. The 1988 policy had specified that forest-based industry should ‘raise the raw material needed for meeting its own requirements’ and that ‘no forest-based enterprise, except that at the village or cottage level, should be permitted in the future’. In the 2018 version, local communities are not even mentioned, except in the context of tourism and as menial labourers and beneficiaries of non-timber forest produce.

No mention of gram sabhas. No restoring the primacy of Community Forest Rights (CFRs) over Individual Forest Rights (IFRs). Just a hatchet job to make forest land more easily accessible to those seeking short term cash profits. In Rithe’s words: “If land rights are vested in communities, project proponents would find it difficult to wrest them from people. Political leaders know this and they know that individuals are more easily divided and ruled than communities. Wildlife activists should also wake up and unite to demand implementation of the critical CFR process and work together with communities and their representatives to prepare equitable and scientifically sound forest management plans.”

Pathak shares this view “Community rights have a huge potential to safeguard forest areas and create a sense of custodianship among the local people. What is important is that a legally correct and transparent process is followed to verify all kinds of rights. In think it would be unfair, unjust and in the long run counter-productive to use community rights as a tool for conservation without understanding the deep injustices that some of the communities may be facing because their IFRs have not been recognised. It is often difficult for communities to trust the system when their IFRs are not recognised. A very good example of bringing rampant encroachments under control has been that of the Yaval Wildlife Sanctuary where recognition of IFRs and CFRs has led to better protection of forests and control over encroachment.”

Adds Kishor Rithe: “The CFR lands must be rewilded and restored to biodiverse forest status as they are simply not suitable for cultivation. Economic benefits will flow back to communities if wildlife and social groups unite to protect their interests. Also, the forests under question are primary sources of water upon which millions are dependent. The huge amount of money lying at the disposal of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) Bill should be applied to natural regeneration and not monoculture plantations.”

Equitable Justice

Neema Pathak believes the best way to deliver equitable justice is by completing the process of recognition of all rights as specified under the FRA in a transparent manner. “There should be no more diversion of forests for non-forestry purposes and mining leases should be cancelled in areas where people have claimed CFR rights or are in the process of doing so. The government must proactively facilitate a process by which local gram sabhas set up CFR management committees under Section 5 and Rule 4 e of FRA and prepare their forest conservation and local livelihood plans (without subverting these committees by promoting JFM committees as is the case now). These plans are included by the Forest Department in their management plans for Protected Areas. Negotiations on equal terms should take place between the gram sabha and the Forest Department in case there are needs of wildlife, which have not been taken into account in the gram sabha’s plans. All departments should converge resources to ensure implementation with local people finding appropriate livelihood opportunities throughout the year based on their choices and what is right for both forests and agriculture, rather than what is imposed on them. The Wildlife Protection Act provides for exploring co-existence but while we hear about people being relocated all the time, there is no effort towards developing co-existence models. The steps suggested here would go a long way in creating a positive discourse around biodiversity conservation in India. Our long-term ecological security depends on these steps to be followed not just in Protected Areas, but across all landscapes, including areas outside Protected Areas.”

The intention behind the FRA was to enable marginalised tribal communities to own land they had used for centuries, where they would be able to live with dignity. Photo courtesy: Subhadeep Debnath

Author and activist Felix Padel also reiterates that community rights should be given precedence over individual rights by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. He suggests that tribal or indigenous people generally have a concept of land ownership/use in common rather than the pernicious, colonial era and now pervasive custom of private property. He cites the example of the Dongria tribe that insisted that the whole Niyamgiri forest is theirs, while rejecting private pattas. He adds, “What is required is a major movement for outside help that would learn from and support such communities, without disrupting their forest-dependent traditional economy. Employing some as tourist guides could be part of this; but such endeavours tend to be very top-down, and by selectively funding some individuals quite well, there’s potential for creating disastrous divisions and resentments in such communities. So there needs to be a much more egalitarian way of proceeding based on a shared understanding that these communities have lived in symbiosis with the forest ‘since history began’ as examples of true/long-term sustainability; that colonial-era forest laws and forest officials have perpetuated massive injustice by taking away forest rights; that forest species and biodiversity are disappearing very fast and unlimited hunting and clearing of the forest is destroying far more than the short term benefit of meat or profit and there’s a need for ‘reversing the learning’. If enough well intentioned people approach such communities asking them “how can we help?” as well as “how can we learn from you?” then some of the vast knowledge of the forest these communities have inherited can be passed on towards a far more equitable way of managing such landscapes; and young people from these communities can become enthusiastic conservationists, instead of getting pushed into the arms of hunting mafias by fury at the injustice of getting thrown out of forests where they’ve always lived.”

This would greatly help us to formulate a strategy for tentative bridge links. Irrespective of whose ‘fault’ it turns out to be, if we fail, the ecological base upon which the survival of over 1.3 billion people of the Indian subcontinent depend could be damaged beyond repair.

The degradation and fragmentation of once-contiguous forest blocks is a key reason for the human-wildlife conflict that plagues India today. An enlightened Forest Policy would focus on the need to consolidate large forests land parcels, establishing connectivity, with a clear focus on improving the quality of forest cover and by regenerating degraded forest lands in the possession of State Forest Departments in consultation with, and by offering dignified employment to lakhs of people living next to forests.

Apart from wind and rain, the strike strategy of such critical regeneration would rely on natural pollinators and seed dispersers. K. M. Chinnappa and Praveen Bhargav, got it right, “We urge that the policy prescription of ‘restoring habitats’ must be qualified to restrict it to natural restoration only with protection measures. Huge ecological damage is presently being perpetrated due to year-on-year funding to State Forest Departments through approval of poorly drafted management plans without adequate scrutiny. These are packed with unnecessary but highly lucrative civil works and earth-moving proposals including water retention trenches, excavation of feeder drains, check dams, enrichment planting, water harvesting structures and more. It is time to stop the destruction of natural forests caused by such un-scientific policy prescriptions, sow seeds for more corruption-ridden projects to be included in working plans and schemes that are certainly not in line with the government’s avowed commitment for good governance.”

Despite our problems, we must raise our children to believe, viscerally, that we live on an exquisite, self-repairing planet. A planet capable of fixing the problems their elders have inflicted on them. Infusing them with more knowledge, respect and caring for wild nature will create a whole new generation of planet managers who will do better by the biosphere than we did. 

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