India needs a good forest policy, not just a wildlife plan | opinion | Comment | Hindustan Times
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India needs a good forest policy, not just a wildlife plan

If we can have a wildlife plan (the latest one has just been released) every 15 years, why wait for twice that time for a forest policy which has a direct bearing on the life of millions of Indians who depend on forests?

opinion Updated: Oct 12, 2017 14:01 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
A palm plantation is not the same thing as an old growth forest even if they sequester the same amount of carbon. A warehouse of wooden tables and chairs is certainly not a forest substitute
A palm plantation is not the same thing as an old growth forest even if they sequester the same amount of carbon. A warehouse of wooden tables and chairs is certainly not a forest substitute (Praful Gangurde/ Hindustan Times)

India’s forest policy, that brings clarity to India’s forest laws and guides implementation on the ground, is almost three decades old, and a lot of it is dead wood.

The Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Forest Management reviewed the National Forest Policy of 1988 and brought out a new draft forest policy in 2016. But it was unceremoniously withdrawn and since then little has been seen or heard about it.

In the time that the Centre has hemmed and hawed over its forest policy, it has also released two wildlife action plans: One in 2002 and the latest one this week (for the period from 2017-31). If we can have a wildlife plan every 15 years, why wait for twice that time for a forest policy which has a direct bearing on the life of millions of Indians who depend on forests?

For an example of how redundant the 1988 policy is, one doesn’t have to look beyond its first stated objective: “restoration of the ecological balance that has been adversely disturbed.” The term ‘ecological balance’ has long fallen from favour among ecologists themselves, who recognise that there is no pristine state before human intervention that we can hope to reinstate.The science surrounding forest management has matured, our policies need to reflect that. So have conditions on the ground and around the globe.

The wildlife action plan unveiled by the environment ministry this week pays special attention to emerging threats like climate change. The forest policy of 1988, does not even mention the word ‘climate change.’ Climate change has fundamentally changed the way we view forests. They are no longer just habitat for wildlife, sources of timber and other produce, and performers of unknowable “ecosystem services.” One of those ecosystem services is essential to curbing global warming: soaking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keeping it locked away for decades if not centuries; which is why climate scientists lovingly refer to them as carbon sinks.

Under the Paris agreement, India has committed to increase the carbon sequestered in its trees and forests by 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes by 2030. Forest cover refers to all lands more than one hectare in area where the density of tree canopy is 10% or more. Tree cover usually refers to patches of trees outside the forest area that have traditionally been hard to map. With improving remote sensing technologies we are now able to capture even the smallest patches of green.

While it is a wonderful thing to have a growing carbon sink, it doesn’t translate into a growing habitat or make for better landscape management, another thrust area for the new wildlife action plan. Whether the government views its forests as supple supporters of life and landscapes or just cut and dried carbon cold storage, makes a difference to how they are managed. An updated policy will shed light on this, but there are some signs.

The Indian government recently partnered with USAID under the banner of ‘Wood is Good’ to promote the use of wood in construction and as a raw material because compared to other materials, the production of wood doesn’t generate carbon dioxide in the process.

For those not paying attention, it may seem like another fluffy slogan, but it actually suggests a deeper shift, in what else, the government’s forest policy. The 1988 policy was all about “encouraging efficient utilisation of forest produce and maximising substitution of wood” to reduce pressure on forests.

The abandoned draft policy of 2016 also included suggestions for promoting the commercial use of wood which would imply a larger role for industry in forest management. A policy that encourages commercial utilisation must put equal emphasis on replacing the forests. A palm plantation is not the same thing as an old growth forest even if they sequester the same amount of carbon. A warehouse of wooden tables and chairs is certainly not a forest substitute.

The only thing that should become redundant and hasn’t, is the targets set under these policies. In the 1952 forest policy, the first for independent India, the goal was to have 33% of the country’s area under forests. In 1988, the target remained the same. Just like our policy our targets have ossified too.

@MalavikaVy