Saturday, December 27, 2014

02 Forestry challenges in India-I. Strengths, achievements

The challenges facing forestry in India-I. The strengths and achievements

In addressing the question of what challenges are before the forest sector in India today, I thought that it would be a good starting point to look at how the sector has dealt with its challenges in the past, and where its main successes and deficiencies lie. The present is obviously not unconnected to the past, and we may be able to make a realistic assessment of our present position if we look at where we came from and in what shape we have come through those past challenges.

The basic fact of forests as a resource is that they are in the nature of an ‘open treasury’, owing to their generally wide geographical expanse, the impossibility of erecting boundary fences or maintaining them in perfect condition over all the areas and over long periods of time; and the intimate juxtaposition of human settlements and forest patches. Given the huge population and high population densities of India, it was difficult even in pre-independence times to closely protect the nearer forest blocks, and only the more distant and mountainous tracts had their vegetative cover left in any good condition. Even there, although the population densities of forest dependent or tribal communities may have been comparatively low, the practice of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation took its toll (although social environmentalists have been at great pains too make out a case for this practice during recent years). In the densely settled plains, the pressure of human populations was all the heavier, through hacking for local needs like firewood and small timber, only exacerbated by the administrative pressure to generate revenue through commercial harvesting. There has been a continuous imbalance between supply and demands for both subsistence consumption and market products, and the situation was getting so out of hand that the Supreme Court had to intervene and order a cessation of the rampant fellings that had been going on in the richest forest areas such as the Western and Eastern Himalayas, the Western and Eastern Ghats, and other ecologically sensitive areas of the country. India has been a good example where a comprehensive legal framework and a strong judicial institution have together contributed to a better forest conservation situation, supported additionally by a bold and imaginative change in the national forest policy, that was taken up and developed on the ground by a highly motivated and well-knit forest service that had a great pride in its own competence and record of achievements in a hostile environment.

Let’s look at some basic assessments of the forest cover in India. According to the Forest Survey of India’s successive State of Forest Reports (SFR), there has been a small increase in the forest cover from around 66 million hectares (mha) in 1997 to 69 mha in 2007, or some 3 mha, even after correcting for a certain amount of re-computation of the figures owing to improvement in the technology of satellites, sensors, and interpretation methodologies. Subsequently,  the forest cover has increased slightly to 69.8 mha in 2011 as per the latest SFR (2013). We will have to wait for the 2015 report to see whether this moderate rate of increase has been maintained, as it may be only now that the effects of two trends, one the heightened pace of development, and second the thrust given to distribution of forest lands under the Forest Rights Act (2006), begin to be visible in the field. A small chart is given below to portray this gradual stabilization of the forest cover in graphic terms.
How did this come about? It is sometimes (and not kindly) dubbed a ‘miracle’ (Jay Mazoomdar, 2012 in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 08, Dated 25  Feb 2012), as if forests are indestructible and self-sustaining. We foresters cannot suppress a little smile when we read such things. Of course it was not a miracle, dear Sir, and what has contributed to the improved situation has been a combination of many factors, which we will be discussing in more detail. Without the long foresight of the colonial administrators, the dedicated work of the staff on the ground, and the culture and ethos of the people which engenders a natural respect for life and nature, a country with such a huge population and so many problems could hardly have succeeded in maintaining such a rich biodiversity stock and forest cover.

In summary, we may also mention the changes between the 1952 forest policy and the 1988 policy, which reduced the pressure for commercial returns and increased the support for ecological and environmental considerations (including livelihood support), which naturally gave a push to the induction of mechanisms and institutions for participatory management with communities, that goes under the name of Joint Forest Management (JFM) in India. Between the early 1980’s, when the first experiments in JFM were initiated in pockets like the Aravallis in Haryana and Midnapore in Bengal, the number of JFM committees (also called Village Forest Committees, VFCs) had grown to some 118,000 by 2011, looking after around 23 mha of forest in the country (see chart). The figures for interim years have been culled from different reports and papers, as follows. N.C. Saxena, in his detailed account The Saga of Participatory Forest Management in India (CIFOR Special Publication , 1997) quotes an estimate by Singh & Khare (1993) that  by 1993 JFM had been implemented on some 1.5 million ha (mha) of forests under some 10,000 FPCs. As on 15 August 2001, there were 62,980 committees managing 14.25 mha forest area (FRI Dehradun, Status of Joint Forest Management in India (as on June 2011), Dehradun, 2011). By September 2003, Government of India reported that it covered some 17.33 mha with 84,642 JFM Committees in 27 states (Ministry of Environment & Forests figure, quoted in Ravindranath & Sudha, 2004, Joint Forest Management in India: Spread, Performance and Impact, Universities Press). Joint Forestry “Updates” were occasionally published by the “JFM Network” with support from the Ford Foundation. In 2006, when the next status report was prepared by the ICFRE, there were 1,06,482 JFM committees managing 22.01 mha forest (FRI, 2011, cited above). By 2011, as stated in the FRI report of 2011, the numbers stood at 22.9 mha area under various forms of JFM, involving around 1,18,213 village or hamlet communities (compared to the estimated 2,50,000 gram sabhas under the Panchayati Raj regime).
A second major factor has been the Forest Conservation Act or FCA (1980), which took away the power of the state governments to dereserve forest areas, and made it mandatory to obtain the permission of the central government, on the basis of the advice of a Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) consisting of both government officials (mainly forest officers in the central Ministry of Environment & Forests, MoEF), and non-official members with expertise in forestry, wildlife and environmental conservation. The Supreme Court took up the cause of forest conservation and implementation of the FCA  under the umbrella of the ‘Godavarman’ case, which has been running right from the 1990s, using it as a platform to pass hundreds of orders on forest management, administration, policy and conservation. It is perhaps thanks to the Supreme Court, and the numerous advocates, academics, officials, and activists who assisted the Court in various ways, that the governance of forests was made a national issue, and some degree of stability has been achieved. As one of the honourable judges confided to us a few years back, the Supreme Court justices decided to pass very strong orders, curtailing fellings, instituting supervisory mechanisms, and so on, because the situation had got out of hand, “like a team of runaway horses” that had to be lassoed and tied down. A system of payments for the damage (or use) of the environmental services of diverted forest areas was instituted by the court through the net present value (NPV) payments, and this together with the payments towards compensatory afforestation (CA) were directed to be put into a fund maintained by the central ministry (called the CAMPA fund), rather than having the amounts lying around with the state administrations. The situation is not perfect, but definitely there is now some system and order in the CAMPA affairs thanks to the scheme drawn up by the ministry with the court’s approval and guidance.

Ministry assessments are that the rate of annual diversion of forests, which used to be of the order of some 150,000 ha per year before the FCA came into force, came down to around 38,000 ha per year after 1980, or even lower, 23,000 ha per year if the pre-1980 legacy of 366,000 ha eligible lands are excluded from the post-1980 tally. We will look at these aspect also in the ensuing articles.

Another area where the forest sector has been able to register some gains is in wildlife, with a network of some 688 protected areas (PAs) as on September 2013, comprising of 102 National Parks and 515 Wildlife Sanctuaries, with most of the world’s wild tigers and Asian elephants being found in and around these areas, apart from other animals, birds, reptiles, other organisms of both land and water, and flora. Since there is so much material available in the media and popular magazines like Sanctuary Asia about wildlife, we need not repeat all those details. Suffice it to say at this point that these achievements have been made not just by luck, but again by a combination of administrative measures, scientific activity, advocacy by interested individuals and organizations, and most of all thanks to the ethos and tolerance of our people. Of course much more needs to be done to consolidate and insulate these islands of biodiversity, and to achieve a sustainable relationship of wildlife with people outside the PAs. These are all matters of intense and sometimes passionate debate, and some of these socio-economic and public policy aspects will be discussed in ensuing instalments. The Protected Areas are estimated to cover around 20.6% of the forest area, or 4.9% of the total geographical area of the country, and more areas need to be set aside to secure different ecological systems, rescue and restore connecting corridors and buffers, and include prime natural habitats and refuges in the network.

Agroforestry and restoration of degraded lands (both within and outside the forest under the charge of the forest departments) is another area where significant efforts have been made, and substantial benefits reaped. Although the subject of agroforestry itself has been transferred to the agriculture sector in the central ministries, the forest departments are still playing a crucial role on the ground in the states, whether through production of planting stock, or through research and extension support, apart from significant field activity through state schemes and externally-aided projects, which still recognize the synergy between the forest and adjoining non-forest lands in the rural landscape. It is estimated that the major portion of timber feeding the market is now from trees outside forest: one study, done by Devendra Pandey for the India Forest Sector Report, 2010 (published by the ICFRE on behalf of the ministry) records that trees outside forest (TOF) produced some 44.3 million cum of timber, as against just above 2 million cum for timber from the forest departments. This shows the importance of the non-forest sector for production of wood in the country, especially with the strict controls imposed on fellings in the managed forests.

Apart from agroforestry, there has also been a concerted effort to restore the huge tracts of degraded lands to a better state, by v arious interventions and models like assisted natural regeneration (ANR), inter-planting, block planting, soil conservation, etc. depending on the site conditions and availability of suitable species and techniques. Over the years, the approach has changed from clear-felling and planting of exotics, to a more ecologically sensitive one based on participatory planning, attention to local needs, and inter-departmental efforts like watershed development. The National Afforestation Programme (NAP), the many externally-aided projects (EAPs), and lately the Green India Mission (GIM) which was drawn up in 2010-11 and commenced operations in the current five-year plan (2012 onwards), are programmes that will merit mention and review.

These, we feel, are some of the major strengths and achievements of the forest sector in India, which the country can be proud of. However, nothing is perfect (especially in the public sector!), and we will go on to discuss the weaknesses and deficiencies in the forest departments and their approach from other points of view.