Does India need a new forest policy?

India's forest policy recently came into the spotlight when a report by an institution was erroneously projected as a draft of the new forest policy. The resulting discussion it fuelled flagged some important issues including the need for a new forest policy, and the extent to which its objectives and emphasis ought to deviate from the previous one.

The 1988 National Forest Policy (NFP) was visionary in its scope and ambition, where precedence was given to maintaining the "ecological balance of the nation as vital for sustenance of all lifeforms."

Uniquely, it recognised that forest communities have the 'first charge' on forest produce, paving the way for the Forest Rights Act.

A new forest policy must retain these progressive changes that are as relevant today. Nevertheless, more than 25 years has elapsed since the NFP and much has changed, nationally and globally. The forestry sector now plays an important role in addressing climate change, and India targets a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

Joint Forest Management has transitioned to the Forest Right Act which under section 3-1 (i) provides scope to the community for forest management.

India's forest cover has stabilised and REDD PLUS, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is the flavour of the decade.

In this scenario, what changes are desirable and what aspects should be retained?

Do we, for example, still require the clause that mandates more than two-thirds of the area under forests in hills and mountainous regions? Many hill states have snow-covered areas above the treeline that are not amenable to tree growth.

The importance of forests to a state's economy was recognised in the 14th Finance Commission with a weightage of 7.5% given to forests for devolution of central resources.

This should be incentive enough to protect hill forests. The reality, however, is different; several north-eastern states face a huge fund crunch as little allocation is available to the forest sector. States such as Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have more than 80% areas under forest and tree cover and large areas under dense forests (Nagaland-36.6% of State's GA; Arunachal Pradesh-62%). Therefore, incentives are needed to ensure maintenance of this forest cover, and this provision must be retained. To do otherwise will send a negative signal.

India has promised to sequester 2.5 -3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. To achieve this it would be helpful if the revised forest policy lays out a vision for its implementation; dovetailing it with existing initiatives like the Green India Mission. However, the measures suggested must not impact natural forests-reservoirs of biodiversity and of ecosystem services to millions of people.

The report described above mentions 'commercial plantations on forest lands.' While the need to involve private entrepreneurs and corporations in plantation activities is well recognised, recommending commercial plantations on forest lands contradicts the NFP, 1988, which explicitly states that, "Natural forests... will not, therefore, be made available to industries for undertaking plantation and for any other activities."

Nevertheless, the NFP recognised the need for a "programme of afforestation and tree planting ...on all degraded and denuded lands in the country, whether forest or non-forest land."

Any revision to the forest policy should protect India's natural forests in consonance with the spirit and letter of the 1988 policy. An additional caveat that ecosystems such as grasslands are conserved for their biodiversity would be beneficial. These ecosystems are often misclassified as wastelands since they fall in the scrub or open forest category, and are diverted to other land uses.

A new forest policy provides an opportunity to keep pace with the times, recognise important milestones in Indian forestry such gram sabha-based governance, the role of community-owned and managed areas or issues such as biodiversity lying outside protected areas.

Despite the many benefits of a new policy, it is important to retain the far-sighted prescriptions of the NFP, including its emphasis on ecological security, preserving natural biodiverse forests, and meeting the subsistence needs of tribal and forest-dependent populations.

Needless to say, any revision must be based on an extensive consultative process. The need to increase forest productivity or ensure an adequate supply of wood or enhance carbon sequestration through plantations is well taken, but must not come at the cost of natural forests or forest-dwelling communities.

A recent TERI study indicates the costs of land degradation account for 2.5% of India's GDP in 2014/15 of which forest degradation's share is 40%. Given this, empirical evidence and well-reasoned discussion must drive policy changes with due focus given to reduce natural forest degradation. If this is not done, revising the forest policy might just turn out to be a futile exercise.