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NDA's forest policy begins to fall into place

The proposed changes could see growing use of forest land for commercial and developmental projects

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

The government recently disowned its draft National Forest Policy, raising a stink. It intends to now come up with a new draft at some later stage for public consultations. But the draft, widely floating around by the time it was withdrawn, has given a good sense of the direction forest-related policy is poised to take. Coupled with the draft forest policy, the NDA government has made three other key moves. It has set about trying to bypass the Forest Rights Act. It is about to finalise a regime to allow wood-based industry to use government controlled forests and it hopes the unlocking of the Rs 40,000 crore compensatory afforestation fund, which collects almost Rs 2,000 crore every year, can provide support to grow trees. Lastly and as significantly, it is on the verge of defining areas where forest laws will apply and areas that will remain outside the strict control of the sylvan regime. Put together, these four moves constitute the most dramatic changes in the forestry sector since the passage of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and the National Forest Policy of 1988 before it. To put it in perspective, policy, laws and regulations on forests roughly set the content, tone and tenor of governance over roughly a third of the geographical area of the country and the people who live in these areas or have their livelihoods linked to it. India's recorded forest areas may be only 23.47 per cent but the Supreme Court has extended the application of the legal regime for forest areas to all green zones that stand to be called "forests" following the dictionary meaning of the word. There are vast areas across the country where such green patches exist but the revenue records of the government do not record these as forests. Land records being a state subject, the classification of land and its records remain a maze that everyone gets befuddle by and the politically powerful are able to use to their advantage. Take the case of Aravalli in Haryana, where between the state and the central government, the real estate and mining interests, the villagers and the conservationists, the identification of forests has remained pending for two decades. Ambiguous territory Unlike private property rights and rights over common revenue lands, forest lands have had ambiguous regime since the nationalisation of forests during the colonial period. Unrecorded land rights of millions of tribals and other forest dwellers vapourised as the government set about creating written and recorded control of the state. Officially, millions were consequently treated as "encroachers" on forestlands while they continued to live off the forest resources. Each state set up extraction rights - sometimes called nistar rights - for resources but the control over land moved to the forest department. To give over forest land to industry or other uses required only a stamp of approval from the forest bureaucracy, the state and the central government. Unlike in the revenue land, even consultation with the people was not required. "The British colonial rule essentially set up a legal regime where complete control over forests was with a few officials. This worked for them because they were only interested in timber extraction. Rights were settled in the revenue land to ensure smooth tax collection. But in the forests, the sole interest was timber extraction and so rights were never recognised. The same system was imported into independent India without much change," says Shankar Gopalakrishnan, a researcher and secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity. With time, the forest department began schemes for joint management of forests with people but the veto power over decisions and the power balance remained with the government. "One of the recurring dissatisfactions expressed by social analysts with projects implemented by the forest departments is their unwillingness to let go the control of the forest areas to the community. Social environmentalists want joint forest management and forest governance to go to the next level, where communities will be the sole masters rather than mere participants," writes Dilip Kumar P J, retired director general of forests. Post 1991, as industrialisation progressed, the demand on forestlands to be converted for commercial or development needs rose rapidly.

The complaints arose from both sides: people who found their lands diverted and industry that got dispute-riddled forest lands through the bureaucracy. The forest licence raj did not help either protect the forests or the people living off them or the industry wishing to go through a clean process of acquisition. This was expected to change when the Union government passed the Forest Rights Act 2006. The purpose was to legally recognise rights of millions of tribals and other forest-dwellers on their forestlands. Under the law, government could still use these forests for development work, but only after recognising the rights and extinguishing these by compensating people. In a way, it attempted to bring some equivalence in land laws over forests and revenue areas. Under FRA, people could not transfer their lands but they would at least hold a right scripted in a legal document to be compensated with prior consent, just like it is done under the new land acquisition act. The UPA government partially ignored these provisions when handing over forests for development projects and industries with few exceptions such as the Vedanta mining case being touted to project a pro-poor and pro-tribal image. "The law has not been implemented earnestly because it attempts to bring India's 'hinterland' into a regime of modern state. This finds resistance from those who currently control the multiple economies that thrive out of forestlands," Gopalakrishnan adds. When the NDA came in, it picked up from where the UPA had left and began consultations on how to dilute this requirement of prior informed consent for acquiring tribal forests. It faced a barrage of opposition from outside and some from inside the government and the larger set of RSS affiliates as well. The draft National Forest Policy attempted to find a via media that would help the forest bureaucracy retain some of the lost management control. Oddly, the draft did not make a mention of the process of deciding the definition of forests that would decide how much of the country's geographic area comes under this set of legal restrictions. That process has occurred quietly within the government. "A definition is going to be a blunt instrument. The forest laws currently provide for bringing under protection lands that the government has the political and administrative will to protect or build as forests not necessarily just those which have green cover. By defining forest for legal purposes we have entered the where sections of society may think of a patch of land as forests but the will is not there to protect it. The threshold of this definition will be decided by the political will of the government," says Chetan Aggarwal, an independent researcher on forestry and ecosystem services. Defining strategy While the draft policy asked for imposing another green cess, such a cess already exists in the name of the compensatory afforestation fund. The misutilisation of this fund and its inability to act as deterrent against unnecessary use of forestlands for industrial purposes was exposed by the CAG report in 2013. In the monsoon session of Parliament, the NDA government is set to unpack this fund for the states despite claims from the Congress and Left that it would again dilute the control of tribals over their lands. The temptation for the state governments regardless of political colour is that a large part of the Rs 40,000 crore corpus already collected will suddenly be available for them to use. The government also wants to revive the stagnant agro-forestry sector that faces slumping price of imports. A structured policy, which the government is working on could take some pressure off the government forest lands to provide wood but too often, with rare examples, the wood-based industry has preferred direct and simple negotiations with the single large owner - the government - rather than negotiate with farmers. While the recorded revenue from forestry-related activities has stagnated consequently, the actual total use of forest resources, such as firewood and non-timber products remains undocumented in official national accounting processes. The last estimate drawn by Planning Commission said the non-timber forest produce was worth Rs 50,000 crore of trade annually despite the low level of value addition. The NDA would have to find a tricky balance between the contesting demands of industry and development projects in these forests. It would also need to, against the maze of state-level land regulations, create a new forest regime that is more productive and yet provides at least as much democratic space and rights for the forest dwellers and those dependent on forestry that the rest of India enjoys.

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First Published: Wed, June 29 2016. 21:34 IST
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