‘Draft’ national forest policy: Good riddance to bad rubbish
The ‘draft’ forest policy has been jettisoned. The new policy ought to be holisticUpdated: Jun 27, 2016 00:09 IST
A week after the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) put out a document on its website titled ‘National Forest policy, 2016 (Draft): Empowered Communities, Healthy Ecosystems, Happy Nation’, a senior ministry official last week said the document is only a “study” done by Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal, and not a draft policy. The preface to the document, however, said it had been prepared “based on village-level focus group discussions, regional and national level consultations, inputs from various stakeholders and analysis of primary and secondary data sets carried out during the years 2015 and 2016”. In fact, nowhere in the document has it been mentioned that the document should be treated as an input for a new forest policy.
What made the ministry suddenly change its stand on the document? Several civil society organisations have been extremely critical of the ‘draft’ mainly because it proposed to dilute the Forests Rights Act (FRA), do away with requirement of having two-third geographical area of mountainous and hill regions under forests, and for allowing industry to have commercial plantations on the forest land. Not only civil society, media reports suggested that even the Union tribal affairs ministry is unhappy with the proposed dilution of the FRA. The criticisms are not entirely misplaced: If a critical policy like the forest policy ignores FRA, combined with the Centre’s other steps — funneling huge amounts of money through Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority to forest officials, bypassing consent for diversion of forest land, instituting forest ‘rules’ to undercut community management, it shows that the aim is to increase the power of the forest bureaucracy and keep local communities out of the decision-making process.
While devising a new policy, the ministry must not only focus on increasing the forest area and bettering the quality of the forests but also ensure that the connection between forest-dependent communities and forests is not lost. The crux of the problem in India’s existing forest policy — the Forest Policy of 1988 — has been that it made the forest department the manager of the forests and the people lost their rights over it. But as the Uttarakhand forest fires showed recently, a few hundred forest officials and a few thousand employees of the department can do nothing when a calamity strikes. They need community support in such emergencies.