Thursday, January 8, 2015

03 Forestry challenges in India-II. Threats, opportunities

The challenges facing forestry in India-II. The threats and opportunities

In the previous section, some of the strengths and achievements of the forest sector were summarized. This section looks at the other side of the picture; or rather, looks at the picture from the other viewpoint, that of the social environmentalists and activists.

One of their major criticisms is that the whole forest administration set-up and governance framework is a vestige of the colonial government, and in their view this renders the work of the department devoid of merit.
They see in the forest department, its hierarchies, the forest laws, and the control they exercise, a colonial hangover that has been removed in other spheres. In the Parliament, for example, representative democracy rules. In district administration, panchayati raj has replaced the district collector. It appears to these critics that only the forest department is holding out, obstinately refusing to work with the panchayats (a charge made in the Western Ghats Ecology Experts (Gadgil Panel) report!), and following some outdated rules instituted by the colonial government principally to garner revenue.

In the social activist’s view, the very act of reservation of forests was nothing but an expropriation of the rights of the people, especially the Adivasis or aboriginal tribal communities, who were actually the masters of the forest before the colonial government set up the forest department. The colonial government is accused of throwing the tribals out of their own homelands, all in order to get at the timber resources for profit. The curtailed access to the forest incited revolts among the tribals, which were part of the independence movement. According to the sociologists who have written on this issue, this confrontation has continued even after independence, and in harsher terms because of the ascendancy of so-called national interests, both of conservation and of economic development. The local communities, mainly tribals, are not being allowed to carry on their traditional mores of culture and livelihoods, based on non-timber forest products and shifting cultivation, resulting in impoverishment and starvation among them. With the acceleration of large development projects and extractive sectors like mining, there has been large scale uprooting of these already impoverished people, who have become ecological refugees and victims of development in their own land.

The criticism of the forestry itself as practiced by the department is that it has placed too much emphasis on timber, to the detriment of NTFPs, ecological values and so on. The obsession with extraction of valuable timber has led to over-exploitation of particular species and opening up of the forest through logging roads and labour camps, to the detriment of both the forests and the tribals, and replacement of mixed natural forest by monoculture, again with ill effects on ecology, hydrology, and local livelihoods and culture, not to speak of erosion of biological diversity and natural habitats.

Forest Rights

Prolonged opinion building and advocacy by social activists on the above lines finally led to the passing of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, in order to set right the “historic wrongs” done to forest-dependent and forest-dwelling communities. This Act provided a mechanism to give recognition to both individual and community rights to protect, and to use, forests, by-passing the forest departments that had been very chary of recognizing or allowing such rights in the past, by vesting the power in the village assembly or Gram Sabha to receive claim applications and decide on these rights. There was provision for appeal to the sub-divisional and district committees, however. The forest department could not therefore unilaterally refuse to accept such rights. This was obviously a huge change in the legal situation of communities vis-à-vis forest administrations, and also a significant vindication for those who saw the forest law as a vestige of colonialism and were of a mind to do away with the forest administration.

By 31 October 2010, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) data showed that some 2.95 million individual forest rights claims had been filed (that is, for forest land under possession or cultivation),  of which (as per the assessment of the Joint MoEF-MoTA committee on Forest Rights Act, which presented a report in December 2010 titled “Manthan”), at least 83% had been “disposed of”, at least 35% (or around 1 million) were reported to have been approved, and titles distributed in around 97% of these cases (Manthan, para 3.2.1). The report estimates (from the states that had reported the area involved) that the average area assigned per claim was only around 0.9 hectare (belying the fear that people would try and take the maximum allowed in the Act, i.e. 4 ha per claim). The report also noted that the process did not seem to have proceeded “adequately” in some states, such as Jharkhand where only some 30,000 claims had been registered, which appeared unbelievably low with regard to the population of tribals living in and around forests. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) archive files available on their website ( Page “Status Report of FRA Implementation Oct 2012”, accessed on 7 January 2015), by 31 October 2012, the claims filed amounted to 3.24 million, claims disposed of 86.2%, and titles issued to 1.27 million, involving around 1.16 million ha land (or 0.91 ha per claim).

The latest update available on the website (, Page “Status Report of FRA Implementation October 2014”, accessed on 7 January 2015) gives the following figures up to 31 October 2014: 3.87 million claims filed, 3.2 million claims disposed of (82.61%), 14,97,881 titles distributed (around 1.5 million), involving an area of 2.5 million hectares (this is based on reports from 14 states only, and works out to around 1.67 ha per claim). Interestingly, Chhattisgarh state reported 7.56 lakh claims received, 3.12 lakh titles issued, involving 6.02 lakh ha (average 1.93 ha per claim), which indicates how much the process has been energized in the intervening years. A small chart is given here to portray this progress.

 It is not intended to undertake a full and detailed analysis of the FRA here, as aspects will be taken up in subsequent articles. What is of concern here to the forest departments is the apparent open-ended nature of the process. If this process were restricted to the historic rights that had been overlooked at the time of forming the reserves, there should not be much reduction in the actual standing forest cover, as the FRA is not supposed to distribute existing forest for fresh cultivation. Even the existing plots are required to have been under occupation on the prescribed date of record, 13 December 2005. But in practice, it would be very difficult for a village community to deny occupancy rights for persons who do not fit the conditions prescribed (three generations or 75 years continuous occupancy for non-tribals, for instance). Moreover, the lack of a closing date for receiving claims is a matter of concern, because it holds out a promise that both existing occupancies (we no longer use the word ‘encroachments’!) that had not satisfied the three-generation criterion as on 13 December 2005 would also eventually come up for consideration as time passes, and even fresh occupation may be incited by such a promise. Whether or not it was part of the original package envisaged, it will become very difficult to stem the continuous whittling away of the remaining forest estate.

From a perusal of writings by social activists and environmentalists, it is apparent that what they are envisaging is a complete transfer of control to the communities, such is their disgust with the forest departments. The forest administrators, on the other hand, have been cautioning against the complete withdrawal of the ’state’ from the forest areas, as these will be likely to be taken over by anti-social and anti-national elements if left unguarded. After all, the forests are the home of invaluable forest products, wildlife, precious minerals, and so on, apart from the collective goods of ecosystem services and protection of biodiversity and ecological systems. Even as valuable real estate, it would be difficult to protect the forests from the onslaught of private interests. Much as the social activists may wish it, the ‘state’ is not going to wither away any time soon, and by withdrawing from the forests, we may only be hastening its transfer into private hands. So this is going to be a big challenge to the forest departments in the next few years.

The challenge of conflicting laws, roles, and expectations

Because the forest administration is responsible for the thankless job of protecting the forests from both local pressures and the demands of the larger economy, it has become unpopular with all sections and the butt of attacks from the affected interest groups, who have ganged up against the forest departments and services. That it has done this fairly effectively, and combined it with many initiatives to soften the control by participatory modes, is not sufficient for the ideologues, who want nothing less than the complete withdrawal of the department. This is perhaps the only sector in which they will achieve the wonted “withering away” of the state in the Marxist millennial view. Whether the forest departments will have any role in this set up is not clear. Also unclear is the interaction of different laws like the FRA, the FCA, the Indian Forest Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, various environmental laws, and the agencies concerned with these enactments. This is going to be a big challenge to the officials on the ground, as they may come into conflict with the expanded version of the gram sabha and the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) in general.

Opportunities and alternatives

Faced with such a situation, what are the alternatives before the forest sector? Some of my colleagues suggest that there is no need to react to the environmentalist critique (and critics), because the forest services are authorised by law to do a certain job, and as long as that is so, no one can question them. I am not so sure. The law can always be changed, and the forest service needs to engage in the debate and provide information to the discerning public about these issues.

Actually, there has been so much good, constructive work by the forest departments both with the forests and with local communities, that it will be feasible to build on it and arrive at a more harmonious solution in the people-versus-administration tussle. Even if the forest services do not wish to engage directly with the critics (and service rules expressly prohibit vindication of acts through the media), it appears that the foresters can earn the goodwill of both the communities and the political class by focusing on just a few crucial problem areas.

The first issue (and hence, opportunity) is to address the problems of tribals and other forest-dwelling and dependent communities squarely and comprehensively. Of course forest administrators may justifiably question the extent to which one department can take on the responsibility of a whole section of the population. To some extent this is reasonable, but it should not end in the forest department (FD) washing its hands off the whole matter. For better or for worse, the FD is the main government presence in these remote areas, and in a sense the forests have been placed under the custodial care of the department for the sake of the long-term interests of the forest communities. In the past, the FD used to take on the rather paternalistic role of taking care of the basic needs and livelihoods rather more cheerfully, especially as there was a lot more wage work available. With the withdrawal of the department from many spheres of activity, and the general waning of forest operations, the avenues for meaningful wage labour have no doubt come down, but there are other opportunities through NREGA and other schemes. The FD can, moreover, perform a catalyzing role through JFM and NAP, and now the Green India Mission (GIM), to bring other government agencies into the area and leverage activities for all-round development (Tamilnadu seems to have done especially well in this direction). Whether or not the department has a mandate to do this, it will be in its interests to take on the role, especially in those selected districts and taluks that have been identified as affected by left wing extremist activities  or marked by grinding poverty, malnutrition, starvation, and such extreme distress.

A second area for the department to work on is the relations with ‘outsiders’, which includes academics and the media. The department will have to accept that students, scholars, professors, researchers, social workers, social scientists of all types, activists, protagonists, leftists, and media persons are going to be interested in forest and related matters, and will be continually making demands on the time and resources of the department, as well as investigating and reporting. Sometimes research scholars come back from the districts with unhappy stories of being made to wait for days and weeks for permissions and so on. From what I have seen, there is really not much use trying to keep them out by stalling tactics. If it has to be done, it would be as well to give the permissions with speed and grace, and provide the utmost support and help in the office and the field. Perhaps this will translate into some goodwill, which may soften adverse criticism in the final reports, and it may also help the department itself to understand better the mechanisms in the lower levels of the hierarchy and the problems and opportunities in the field.

To service all the people interested in forest matters, the department will need to organize its data better, and improve its capacity to undertake a vigorous public information strategy and programme. Professional help from outside (through outsourcing) may be better than trying to do it all in-house, but the budgets to do this will have to be found. Along with this, obviously there has to be a great improvement in working style and methods, whether of decision-taking, or planning and monitoring, or delegation of authority and powers, or information management and presentation. The department could use the opportunity presented by the changing environment to give space and role for others, nurture talents among not only the subordinate staff but also communities and interest groups, students, voluntary agencies, etc.

To undertake the required dialogue with interest groups, the department could think of setting up some sort of organized process of consultation, perhaps through inter-sectoral and multi-stakeholder working groups or study groups, undertake pilot trials, etc. In fact the GIM framework is meant to support just such a process, as it is supposed to work through a problem identification and problem solving approach with all stakeholders and a wide range of implementing agencies. Some of the deficiencies of the timber-oriented working plans could be addressed through such a process, and the concept of forest working for a narrow objective (timber, revenue etc.) could be broadened to one of natural resource management  for a wider range of interests, including ecological and environmental values, support of local livelihoods and cultural well-being through support to non-timber forest products (NTFP), value addition, training and capacity building for both economic activities and for public planning and management (through decentralized governance structures, both within and beyond the PRIs), other uses like rangeland management for animal husbandry, off-farm income generating activities, and so on. Indeed many foresters have already taken the initiative to support such things, and the department should be actively documenting such examples and turning some of them into iconic experiences like the academics and NGOs have done (and making heroes of community leaders and foresters, too). This may bring the department some amount of public sympathy and recognition, that will enable it to maintain the protective legal and institutional framework in place while accommodating the ‘pluralistic’ impulses in response to the conflicting laws such as the FRA and the concerns for human rights and quality of life.

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