Monday, February 16, 2015

09 Forestry and the Planning Commission-III. External relevance of plan proposals to sector priorities and needs

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External relevance of the Forest & Wildlife proposals in the 12th Plan

In the previous sections, we examined the internal consistency of the forest sector proposals in the 12th Plan document. We now turn to the external relevance of the plan proposals, i.e. how they relate to the ongoing concerns and priorities of the sector, a discussion which will indicate why there has been a lack of connection between the Plan and the implementing agencies, in respect of the F&WL sector. Perhaps this will also be relevant to the role and working of the Planning Commission in general, and provide some explanation for the apparent disenchantment with it to the point of the new government deciding summarily to wind it up (so early into its term).

A national Plan document would be expected to make a broad survey of the sector and give some description and analysis of its main physical and financial realities and identify priorities and strategies. In the case of the forest sector, for instance, one may justifiably expect some information on the demand and supply of forest products (and services), suggested strategies to fill any perceived gaps and mismatches, etc. This would perhaps be an indication of the external relevance of the Plan proposals. A caveat, of course, needs to be stated here that different persons may have different views on diagnosis of priorities and strategies, so to that extent the actual action plan would reflect the views of those most influential at the time of drafting. In this case it seems that that the Commission had its own sense of things, which has been reflected in the plan document.

Let us consider, for example, the increase in forest (and tree) cover by 5 percentage points, which is stated to be the target of the 11th Plan (para 7.9, p.204 of the 12th Plan document). If it had been a five per cent increase of the existing forest area over 5 years, perhaps it would not have to be commented upon; but it actually demands a rise of 5% of the total land area of the country, which implies an increase of Forest & Tree Cover (FTC) by some 16 mha. It is also stated that tree planting was done over the past plan period at some 1.5 mha per year, but surmises that “the actual increase in green cover is not likely to be more than 5.0 million ha during the entire Plan period” (the 11th Plan, that is). So the country can justifiably ask why there is no corresponding rise in the forest area by say 7.5 mha, which would have been at least a respectable figure.

These issues can be discussed from many angles. First of all, we need to look to whatever estimates there are of the Forest & Tree Cover (FTC), mainly through the biennial reports of the Forest Survey of India, the State of Forest Report (SFR) which is an assessment of forest cover as per satellite imagery obtained usually two years prior to the year of publishing (see endnote 1 for changes in the naming convention of the SFR). The SFR 2009 report estimated that the FC had increased from 65.96 mha in 1997 (SFR 1999 figure normalized to account for technology and methodology changes to make it comparable to the SFR 2009 estimates) to 69.09 mha in 2007 (as per SFR 2009), an increase of 3.13 mha in about 10 years even after adjusting for improvements in remote sensing technology. This 2007 Forest Cover (FC) of 69.09 mha comes to 21.02% of total geographic area (GA) of 328.73 mha, and by adding Tree Cover, i.e. trees outside forests proper, the total FTC came to 78.37 mha or 23.84% of GA. This improvement over the decade 1997-2007 may be ascribed to improved forest protection and fire prevention, especially thanks to Joint Forest Management (JFM), increased public awareness, reduction in diversion of forest for non-forest purposes due to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980, judicial activism in support of conservation, change in forest policy from industrial to conservation-centric, and so on. It works out to approximately 0.3 mha increase in forest cover per year, which looks more reasonable than the 1.5 mha per year figure thrown up from the 20-point reporting.

Two reports have been published since then: the SFR 2011 (published actually in February 2012), reflecting the position as per imagery of October 2008-March 2009, and SFR 2013 (formally released only in September 2014), based on satellite imagery of October 2010-January 2013. We can by custom ascribe SFR 2009 to the position as in 2007, SFR 2011 to 2009, and SFR 2013 to 2011 (as explained already, SFR 2009 should have actually been called SFR 2007 in line with past practice; the change in the naming convention in 2009 means that there is no SFR 2007 in the series). The FTC estimates are as follows:

                                FC           TC           FTC (mha)
 (%)        (%)         (% of total GA)
SFR 2009              69.09     9.28        78.37
                                (21.02)  (2.82)    (23.84)
SFR 2011              69.20     9.08        78.29
                                (21.05)  (2.38)    (23.81)
SFR 2013              69.79     9.13        78.92
                                (21.23)  (2.78)    (24.01)
(Source: respective FSI reports)

Thus, over a period of 4 years (2007 to 2011) there has been an increase of hardly 0.5 mha in FTC, or 0.17 percentage points. Thus to expect or anticipate an increase of 5% (16 mha) over the period of the 11th Plan, or even 5 mha as the 12th Plan document suggests, would be foolhardy, to say the least. To give it due credit, this wild-goose chase of a 5 percentage point increase has not been set in the 12th Plan, but we still have the onerous target of 5 mha under GIM without any clear provision for its funding, as discussed above.

Secondly, it is repeatedly asserted that the planting level has been around 1.5 mha per year during the last Plan period, but this is likely to be a grossly inflated figure if we are looking for a corresponding increase in Forest Cover or FTC: it is not really or even substantially the area of afforestation done by the forest departments, but actually the notional area corresponding to seedlings planted (or distributed, actually) by a number of departments including horticulture, agriculture, watershed, and so on, based on the 20-point reports, which are consolidated at the district level. They are mostly planted in singles and small groups or rows, and will not really be expected to add substantially to the FTC. This is the real answer to the legitimate question of where the new afforestation has disappeared.

As per the assessment of the Forest Sector Report India – 2010 (ICFRE, 2012), the afforestation achieved under the NAP (National Afforestation Programme, hitherto the main central scheme) over a 8-year period ending 2009-10 was around 1.69 mha, which works out to an average of 0.2 mha per year.  Even assuming an average of 0.3 mha per year development of new crops (plantation and other regeneration), this may just not register in the SFR, as India’s rural population is depending on biomass for energy, and this comes in large part from public lands like forests (the livelihood occupation of firewood trafficking to peri-urban areas still persists in less developed regions where modern fuels like cooking gas have not percolated). If the local communities and head-loaders are indeed taking some 200 million tonnes (mT) per year, that may be equivalent to clearing 20 mha at the reasonably high production of 20 T per ha (degraded forests produce hardly 1 T per ha per year of woody biomass). Which is why the forests are so degraded, fully 30 mha being open forest. Of course, the wonder is that the forest is not being entirely cleared in a few years, which may be because the biomass removed is not necessarily from mature trees, but from undergrowth and understory trees (especially saplings, which of course will be the end of the forest once the overwood matures and dies).

To sum up, to make this a realistic planning framework, it should be made more detailed, reflecting the actual status and concerns of the sector, and making detailed provisions for all these to the extent of the central government’s commitment, flagging other items for possible other sources of funding, and making realistic estimates with clear outputs, whether it is greening or river cleaning. There needs to be a more detailed and realistic mapping of schemes and funding onto the Goals (such as identified in Box 7.4) and there should be a more detailed working out of activities to achieve various other objectives mentioned in the text. On the whole, is would be better to have a gradualistic approach with realistically achievable targets and clear provision of resources, rather that clubbing everything under a few umbrella headings and failing to provide the wherewithal to achieve it all.

Policy pressure on the forest sector: no tears for the Planning Commission

The foregoing discussion suggests some reasons why the entire planning process is adding little of value to what the concerned ministry is doing by way of drawing up plans and perspective documents, and how it may even be taking away the usefulness of the national plan by reducing the number of schemes, submerging specific concerns and programmes under a broad cover. This also adds to the work of the ministry, which now has to go back and recreate a second level of plan documents to assign resources to the actual programmes being implemented, regardless of the Commission’s (in this context, misplaced) preference  to merge and combine. Ultimately, all that the Commission has achieved is to assign a number (10,000 cr in the 11th Plan, and around 17,000 in the 12th Plan) for the funds to be placed at the disposal of the ministry, with only a limited internal consistency with the rhetoric in the preamble, and not enough detail to reflect the external relevance of the schemes to the sector realities and requirements. This level of planning did not need all the elaborate run-up activity, task force meetings, sub-sector reports, and so on, and could have been done as well by the ‘babus’ in the ministry. This is one reason why little inconvenience will be felt if the Commission is disbanded; there may even perhaps be a sense of relief, as a lot of futile effort will no longer need to be made by ministry staff in dealing with the processes ordained by the Commission.

Apart from this, there is another reason why few tears may be shed in the rest of the government for the demise of the Planning Commission: this is the often aggressive policy advocacy undertaken in recent years by the Commission, working in tandem with members of the erstwhile National Advisory Committee (NAC), which had become something of a parallel organisation (one is not sure if it could be called an extra-constitutional body) with great influence in directing state policy but little corresponding  accountability. Of course, the implementing department, being an arm of the government that has to work under the direction of the political masters, cannot question policy directives coming from the highest governance levels, even if the professionals in the public services may find some of these directives misinformed or irksome.

However, it also creates a sense of unreality in the implementing agency, since the Planning Commission would have only a very few, junior to mid-level technical personnel proficient in the concerned field of activity, with only limited experience of conditions in different states and situations. Relations between the Planning Commission on the one hand, and the senior levels in the concerned ministries and the state administrations, on the other, are therefore fraught with potential tensions and mutual frustrations. This also applies to the often irksome interactions that state political leaders and senior officials were forced into with the officials of the Commission, which may be one of the major reasons for the new central government to have come out so strongly against the Planning Commission.

In the case of the forest sector, one example will be cited here from the recent years: the policy changes demanded in respect of non-timber forest products (NTFP) and the role of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and gram sabhas. Again, it is not being contested that the elected government has every right and prerogative to make whatever changes in the dispensation that it deems fit and that Parliament approves. What is being analysed here is how the Commission officials used these issues to impose an ascendency over the line organisations (here, the forest departments).

In the case of NTFPs, the Planning Commission joined hands with PRI protagonists and NAC members to impute negligence and corruption on the part of the forest departments in providing access to the forest to the poor forest-dependent tribal and rural communities. The officials in the Planning Commission repeatedly alleged, for example, that the poor were being denied the value of the NTFPs to the tune of Rs.50,000 cr a year, suggesting by imputation that this was being swallowed by the forest officials down the line. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution was brought into the picture by demanding the de-nationalisation of certain major NTFP like tendu leaf in the central Indian states, despite submissions from the concerned state governments that the system of collectors’ primary co-operative societies and state-level federation, etc. had been fine-tuned after years of trial and experience, and that there was no such large-scale defalcation in selling through public auction, or in distributing wages and profits to the primary collectors, as alleged. The value of 50,000 cr was also not matching the revenues realised from the nationalised products (Sethi, 2010), but the Commission subsequently changed tack to cover up this lacuna, by adding bamboo to the list of NTFPs contributing to the 50,000 cr valuation. This led to a campaign to wrest control of bamboo extraction from the forest departments in favour of the gram sabhas (see Times of India, 23 May 2011), involving actual physical visits by the environment minister to a couple of places to lead the local community into the forest to cut and transport bamboo, over the protests of the state forest authorities (see Times News Network, 2011).

Another development was the decision to buy back (procure) certain NTFP from the collectors at a “minimum support price” (MSP) on analogy with agricultural crops (see report by Nitin Sethi in Times of India, 01 May 2011). This does not make sense to the forest department, as the whole argument for de-nationalisation was that the collectors would get a better price in the open market. Now when such better prices were not seen in the market, the forest departments were being asked to buy back these perishable, low-value products which had already been divested to the community, and which the forest department had no use for, at higher than market values. These are products that deteriorate fast if not disposed of immediately, which of course would only land the department officials in endless audit enquiries and disciplinary proceedings. There was also a lack of consistency, in that the same people were criticizing nationalised procurement of tendu leaves as cited above. In the face of lack of enthusiasm in the states to take on this burden, the central government (obviously on the advice of persons in the Planning Commission and the NAC) was toying with the idea of entrusting all this to some other organisation, such as TRIFED (the Tribal Federation), but apparently many of the states are still continuing with the nationalised purchase and sale of certain major NTFPs like tendu leaf as in the past.

Another example of the policy advocacy indulged in by the Commission is the effort to break the impasse created by certain rejections of forest conservation (FC) clearance for coal mining and other projects. A Planning Commission committee, again under Mr.B.K.Chaturvedi, was set up to look into forest clearances, probably to prevail upon the forest officials concerned, but later the matter was entrusted to a Group of Ministers (Sethi, 2011 in Times of India, 6 February, 2011). The overall tenor of the items flagged in the 12th Plan document seems to reflect this exercise, as many of them appear to be nothing less than an attempt to curtail the discretionary power of the ministry by setting up high-level bodies to undertake functions, such as the National Environment and Forestry Council (NEFC), NEAMA, an autonomous body for NTFPs, and the Central Forestry Board (see above).

Unfortunately for these efforts, the Forest Advisory Committee has been spared even in the independent “National Regulator” set-up proposed by the Supreme Court in the “Lafarge” judgement (Supreme Court, dated 6 July 2011 in IA No.1868 of 2007 under Writ Petition (Civil) No.202 of 1995 in the matter of T.N.Godavarman Thirumalpad versus Union of India and Others). 

Once again, the prerogative of the government in power to change the existing policies, rules, and general dispensation is not questioned (always, of course, keeping in mind the federal structure provided in the Constitution and the considerations of propriety and rationality). What is of interest here, is the effect all these policy initiatives of the Planning Commission had on relations with the ministry concerned. There seemed to be an underlying antagonism reflected in the seemingly concerted attempt by several ministries and the Planning Commission together to hold the forest department culpable for all the ills dogging the economy and the condition of the rural and tribal population (including left-wing extremism). As far as the forest wing in the MoEF is concerned, therefore, there will be little regret or nostalgia regarding the demise of the Commission.

Suggestions for the future shape of national planning from the forest sector case

The relevance of this case study of one sector is that there is probably a similar story attached to other sectors and ministries in the central government, and no doubt these sorts of tensions have affected representatives of the state governments as well. Whether the present Planning Commission itself is finally given a lease of life under a changed mandate, or whether a new institution is set up, there are a few points to look out for in the future from the point of view of the affected ministries and the interests of the sectors concerned.

Firstly, the plan exercise should reflect the main concerns of the implementing ministry and the line organisations down to the states level, rather than being influenced by the selective focus and personal predilections of the Commission officials or “experts”. This is the test of external relevance proposed at the start.

Secondly, there should be a consistency between the expression of intent in the opening paragraphs of the Plan document, and the commitment of resources in the operative sections of the Plan document. If there is a grave limitation on the resources available, then this should be accepted up front and bombastic claims avoided in the ‘intents’ paragraphs. Ultimately, the constraining lines may be so closely drawn that the whole exercise may amount to just a few financial (allocation) tables and supporting programme manuals. A frank and open admission of these constraints at the outset of the planning exercise will save a lot of time and futile posturing and bargaining between the ministry officials and the Commission, time which may be spent in making actual programme strategy and implementation more effective. This is the test of internal consistency suggested at the outset.

Further, appropriate organisational levels need to be identified for consultations and discussions. Since the Commission (or its successor agency) is not likely to have sufficiently senior levels from each line department, interacting with the senior officials and the elected representatives in ministries and the state governments becomes fraught with dangers of dysfunctional interactions and communication gaps. The preferred option, perhaps, is for the line departments and professionals in the state services and technical bodies to be given more space and voice, and the independent advocacy role which the Planning Commission seemed to be have been developing (in emulation, perhaps, of the National Advisory Council) to be downplayed in future. There are indications that the alternative body being set up will be more of a think tank, but the paradox is that a purely advisory panel would have difficulty in getting due attention from the ministries and the states if it were devoid of any financial clout. The government, therefore, will have to think through this conundrum carefully, and arrive at such an institutional setup as will add value to the planning capabilities of the sector without impairing internal and external relevance and effectiveness in the process.

Endnote [1] This time lag (which seems to have been reduced over successive years) used to be reflected in the naming scheme of the reports. Thus, SFR 2005, prepared by mid-2007 (released actually in January 2008 as per the PM’s message contained in it), pertains mostly to November-December 2004, except for the north-east and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, which was based on imagery of January-February 2005 (FSI, 2008). The next report to be published in 2009 would have been named SFR 2007, but  the MoEF changed the naming convention, naming it SFR 2009, although it reflected the satellite imagery of October 2006- March 2007. SFR 2007 therefore does not exist.


FSI. 2009. India State of Forest Report 2009. Forest Survey of India. Dehradun. Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India

FSI. 2011. India State of Forest Report 2011. Forest Survey of India. Dehradun. Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

FSI. 2013. India State of Forest Report 2013. Forest Survey of India. Dehradun. Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

Government of India. 2010. National Mission for a Green India. National Consultations. Ministry of Environment & Forests. New Delhi.

ICFRE. 2012. Forest Sector Report India 2010. Indian Council for Forestry Rsearch and Education, Dehradun. Ministry of Environment & Forests. Government of India, New Delhi.

Planning Commission of India. 2012. Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017). Volume I. Government of India, New Delhi. (accessed at

Sethi, Nitin. 2011. GoM to discuss norms for coal mine clearance. Times of India newspaper, 6 February 2011, New Delhi.

Sethi, Nitin. 2011.  Now, an MSP for forest produce. Times of India newspaper, 01 May 2011, New Delhi.

Sethi, Nitin. 2010.  Tribals to earn more from forests. Times of India newspaper, 29 August 2010, New Delhi.

Shah, Mihir. 2014. The “New” Planning Commission. (EPW Web Exclusives”new’-planning-commission.html, 30 August 2014).

Times News Network, 2011. Ramesh moves to give tribals fair share in bamboo trade. Times of India newspaper, 23 May 2011, New Delhi.

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