Our ineffective forest laws

The National Forest Policy, 1988, acknowledged the importance and primacy of the forest-dependent communities, particularly tribals and provided for a sustainable forest management approach with maintenance of environmental stability as prime objective. The commitment to conservation is highlighted by setting the targets of achieving one-third land mass under forest and tree cover. The social concerns have been targeted through increasing productivity to meet the subsistence and livelihood needs of forest-dependent communities and creating people's movements for massive afforestation. The industries have been advised to network with farmers for the supply of raw material.

Any policy needs legislation, schemes and plans and programmes to be translated into actions. The Union Government initiated two resolutions for Joint Forest Management and regularisation of eligible encroachments in 1990. There are more than one lakh JFM Committees which are supposed to manage more than 22 million hectare forests but people's participation is largely on paper. Since many forestry schemes and externally aided projects are linked with JFMCs, so States have adopted a so-called participatory approach of forest management. There is no monitoring mechanism to assess the quality of the participatory approach.

The productivity and livelihood aspect is very poor. The poorest of the poor live in and around forests and derive substantial income from the forests. Since the productivity is low, the forest-dependent community is deriving their income largely through unsustainable harvest which is leads to high level of forest degradation and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In most of the States, there is a benefit sharing mechanism for forest-dependent communities under the JFM institution, but mostly these have not been implemented. The Forest Department is neither able to check the degradation nor able to involve people in checking the degradation.

No amendment has been done to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to implement the social element of the National Forest Policy, 1988. The preamble of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, is to regulate the transport of timber. This does not provide primacy to the right of the forest-dependent communities. The Indian Forest Act, 1927, does not protect the livelihood need of the local community. The responsibility of the National Forest Policy is with the human resource employed in the State Forest Departments. They are trained to implement the people-oriented policy with the regulatory approach to which they are doing from the colonial period.

The Government has enacted the Forest Right Act, 2006, to translate the social and conservation aspect of the National Forest Policy, 1988, into action. But it is not possible to check forest degradation by alleviating poverty of the people in and around the forests. There is empowerment of the people even if it is through the ownership of minor forest produce. This is a key for improving livelihood but it is largely on paper. The status report of the implementation of the Forest Right Act, 2006, indicates that out of 14 lakh rights, only 21,000 are community rights which are crucial for improving livelihood of the forest-dependent communities. As per the monitoring report prepared under the chairmanship of Mr NC Saxena, most of the States have treated implementation of the Forest Right Act, 2006, as a land distributing Act, not for improving livelihood, particularly in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

The policy mandate is to bring one-third of the land mass under forest and tree cover so as to maintain the ecosystem services and biodiversity. India has 23 per cent forest area having 21 per cent forest cover. The tree cover outside the forest area is 2.76 per cent, and forest and tree cover in India is 23.81 per cent of land mass. We need 100 million hectares under forest and tree cover while we have around 78 million hectares of forest and tree cover. We need to have another 27 million hectare under tree cover. The availability of the land is with the agriculture sector. But food security of the nation is also important. Keeping this in mind, there is no scope for transferring land for tree cover. Or else, we will not be able to achieve the goal of one-third land mass under forest and tree cover.

The scope of enhancing forest and tree cover largely depends on agroforestry. This is the mandate of the Union Ministry of Agriculture, not the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Yet, the activities related to agro-forestry have to be implemented by the State Forest Departments. Agro-forestry should be with the Ministry of Environment and Forests. We should keep the target of 25 per cent forest and tree cover, and concentrate on the productivity and quality of forests.

The Forest Department is also not focussing enough on improving productivity. The posts of scientists are lying vacant in State forest research institutes. Funds are not available for the institutes to carry out research. The Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education spends a large portion of the budget on establishment costs. Very little is left for research.

The Union Government framed the ambitious National Forest Policy, 1988, four years before the Earth Summit which included all elements of sustainable forest management, but could not implement even 10 per cent of it. Amendment in the Indian Forest Act, 1927, is needed to implement the social and ecological elements of the policy. The Union Government initiated the process of amending the IFA, 1927, around 20 years ago, but due to political interventions, the amendment is yet to see the light of the day.

There is a lack of political commitment to implement the NFP, 1988, in its spirit. The Forest Right Act, 2006, has many provisions to implement the social and ecological elements of the NFP, 1988, but the State Governments are only interested in implementing individual rights for cultivation and habitation which are attractive to vote-banks directly.

The livelihood and ecological elements of the FRA have been ignored. The State Governments are hardly interested in empowering gram sabhas for forest governance. The Supreme Court has ordered the Government to appoint a policy regulator who can monitor the implementation of the National forest Policy and other allied policies. The appointment is still awaited.