National Forest Policy Draft 2018 Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

This is not the first time the 1988 forests policy has been revisited to open the doors for forest-based industries.

On March 14, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) uploaded a draft of the National Forest Policy 2018, three decades years after the last such policy. The draft appears to be an attempt to shift the approach towards forestry in India – specifically, from a local community- and ecology-centric approach emphasised in the 1988 policy to focusing on timber and forest-based industries.

This is not the first time that the 1988 policy has been revisited to open the doors for forest-based industries. In 2016, a draft policy was published on the MoEFCC website only to be taken down after it was panned for excluding the Forest Rights Act and encouraging the entry of private industries in forest management. Even though the MoEFCC distanced itself from the draft, major chunks in the current draft have been copied from the 2016 document.

While there is merit in new concepts being introduced – economic valuation of ecosystem services, forest certification, national forest ecosystem management information system, etc. – these do not necessitate a complete shift in policy focus.

From tribal to timber

The shift in approach to forestry proposed by the 2018 draft contrasts the guidelines specified in the 1988 policy. The significance attributed to requirements and rights of local, forest-dependent communities is being substituted by the demand for raw material from forest-based industries. The 1988 policy had sections called ‘Rights and Concessions’ and ‘Tribal People and Forests’, both of which have been replaced by ‘Production Forestry’, ‘Increase (sic) the productivity of forest plantations’ and ‘Facilitate forest industry interface’, all of which focus on increasing the timber yield. The draft stresses the “need to stimulate growth in the forest based industry sector” and encourages forest corporations and industrial units to “step up growing of industrial plantations”.

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”. It had reiterated that the requirements of the local communities “should not be sacrificed for this purpose”.

On the other hand, the livelihoods of local communities finds mention in the current draft only thrice: as passive recipients of benefits accruing from wildlife tourism, as labour for forest-based industries and in relation to non-timber forest produce (NTFP). On the last count, the draft policy mentions that business plans for NTFP will be developed based on “climate-smart value chains” but does not specify how any such initiative will be owned or its benefits shared.

Second: the 1988 policy had articulated the need for a massive afforestation programme with particular emphasis on “fuelwood and fodder development” on all degraded and denuded lands in the country, including land available with forest corporations. The 2018 draft aims to use degraded land available with forest corporations to produce “quality timber” and proposes a public-private partnership model for afforestation in “degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests”.

Worse, the document also recommends “commercially important species like poplar and eucalyptus”, both known to be water-demanding species with deep root systems that deplete groundwater. In 2016, the Karnataka government had blamed eucalyptus trees for depleting groundwater in the Arkavathi basin, which led to a fall in water supply to Bengaluru. Both poplar and eucalyptus also have negative allelopathic properties – i.e. they don’t encourage vegetative growth under their cover.

Over the years, numerous instances of gaur entering Kodaikanal in search of food have been attributed to the destruction of grasslands in shola forests by eucalyptus trees. In fact, a Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) Bill, 2015, highlighted this concern, recommending the clause  “particularly native species” be added after the word ‘plantation’ in two instances. However, this was not incorporated in the Act that was finally passed.

Pushing non-indigenous plantation species to meet afforestation targets and timber requirements will damage groundwater recharge and be counterproductive to public investments in such initiatives.

From people to poplar

There are about 1.37 lakh villages in and around India’s forests and an estimated 350-400 million people in them who are depend directly on these forests for sustenance (forests account for 40-60% of their income). They have been living in and around forests for generations and have been involved in in its management and protection. Movements like Khejarli, Chipko, Aapiko, Jungle Bachao Andolan, etc. are simply a few examples of these communities coming together to protect their forests.

The 1988 policy acknowledged this “symbiotic relationship between the tribal people and forests” and was inclusive in its approach to forestry. It stated that community requirements that could not be met by rights and concessions awarded to them should be met by social forestry outside the reserved forests. These ideals provided legal space to introduce concepts like joint forest management (JFM), which encouraged community involvement in the management and protection of forests and also ensured to some extent that the benefits accrued were shared equitably.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, took this a step further. The Act was framed to correct a historical injustice by recognising the forest rights of Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers. The legislation asked that forest rights be given to individuals and communities on land (not exceeding four hectares) that they had been using for generations. The Act also ordered village gram sabhas to constitute committees to conserve and manage this land and prepare management plans for community forest resources.

The 2016 draft that the MoEFCC tried to distance itself from first floated the concept of a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission. The draft stated that an “enabling Operational Framework for this mission should be designed in accordance with the prevalent laws”, and listed 14 ‘fundamental principles’ that delineated the responsibilities of the gram sabha.

It also said, “Institutions governing community managed forests can also be brought under the CFM framework on their demand, and by adhering to the Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) principle” – thus leaving the decision to participate in the mission to the community.

While the current draft also promotes the same concept – to “further strengthen participatory approach” – it omits all the ‘fundamental principles’ and the phrase “designed in accordance with the prevalent laws”. It does not elaborate on its goals, principles or implementation strategies. One statement begs further clarification:

As far as community forest resources management under Forest rights Act is concerned, the new policy will address the same under participatory forest management and the same will be addressed through the proposed community forest management mission.

In this scenario, what will a gram sabha’s role be? Will it still have the authority to constitute committees for the “protection of wildlife, forest and biodiversity” and the authority to “monitor and control the committees”?

Regarding community conserved areas, the draft mentions the northeast region and states, “The State Forest Departments will also play proactive role in preparation of working plan and working schemes and management plans of protected areas in the North-East in totality.” However it is not clear if these, along with other community conserved areas of India, will be brought under the ambit of the CFM Mission. There are many gaps that need to be filled and functions that need to be elaborated apropos the proposed CFM mission.

The current policy draft, together with the CAMPA Bill, highlights a shift in the approach to Indian forestry. Both are pushing for massive afforestation: one by providing funds and the other providing the necessary legal space. The red flag here is that the afforestation is now of “commercially important” invasive timber species that are harmful to the local ecology, instead of indigenous NTFP and fodder species that are integral to local socio-ecological security

The draft is currently open for comments. The comments themselves should be specific – such as indicating para of policy document – and be sent to [email protected], [email protected] and/or [email protected] by 14 April 2018 with “Draft National Forest Policy, 2018” in the subject line. Please also include your name and the name of your organisation.

Sushant Agarwal is a development professional working in the area of community-led natural resource management.