The Proposed National Forest Policy and North-East India
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had uploaded a ‘Draft National Forest Policy’ on its website on June 16 this year. This new draft policy proposes to replace the National Forest Policy, 1988. A policy of this proportion is very important for a region like North East India because of its tribal population. However, only two weeks were given for public opinion, June 30 was the last date. The National Forest Policy 1988 was prepared following one-year long discussion with various researchers, private organizations, NGOs, environment bodies and organizations of different tribes and communities. However, as surprising as it could appear, the Draft Forest Policy prepared by the Indian Institute of Forest Management is unclear, incomplete, inattentive; not only that, its market-oriented nature seems utterly encouraging for those against nature conservation as well as corporate groups. Following angry reactions of cross section of people and different organisations, Union Minister for Environment Prakash Javadkar stated on national media what had been uploaded on its website was only a ‘study’ that the Ministry had not issued any draft notification on National Forest Policy. From this, three points become very clear. First, the lack of sincerity on the part of Union Government in making policy on forest and those who are associated with forest.
Second, while making any such policy the Union Government turns out to be totally indifferent towards public opinion. Third, it is understandable that public discontent had prompted the Government to distance itself from the Draft Forest Policy. However, uploaded on the website of union ministry the notification has been clearly named as Draft Forest policy 2016. Hence, it gives quite a glimpse as what kinds of policy would be undertaken in the coming years by government for forest and the forest dwellers.
In the 1988 policy there was an attempt to maintain a balance between various groups of people living in forest, industries reliant on forest, agro-forestry and environment at large. People were encouraged to be a part of social forestry. Besides, for those living in and around forest, different fuels, woods as alternative livelihood of the tribal groups and importance on herbs was aptly put. Following 18 years since then, through the Forest Rights Act 2006 these communities as well as others could avail more rights that were important not merely for livelihood but also for forest conservation. This 2016 draft has mentioned the 1988 policy to be successful. But then there is no mention about the possible reasons as why it needed a new policy.
It is clearly stated in the new draft policy that if this is to implement, then all the earlier laws concerning forest would have to be reformed. However, according to the Forest Rights Act 2006 the sole rights on land and resources are of the tribal people.
And in accordance with the present new policy the supervision of forest has to be done by the local people along with the Community Forest Management. Forest land and one third of forest resources under such supervision can be given to industries based on forest resources. On the other hand, the Forest Rights Act 2006 concerning the prohibition on transfer of forest land and land belonging to the tribes has nowhere been mentioned. On the contrary, the industrial sector with the help of farmers has intended to do forestry (rubber garden, tea garden etc.) on solely commercial purpose.
In this respect it is worth noting that this new policy is silent about Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 and the autonomous councils formed under Sixth Schedule. The community forest management that is talked about after assembling forest department, local community and personal land, the function of village level body would be to act as per order from forest department. Yet the need was to make policy keeping in mind the forest under the autonomous councils and its associated people.
In the new forest policy there is no mention about what kinds of forest policy will be there for the autonomous councils. As per the Sixth Schedule, the forest departments would go into the autonomous councils. Especially in Assam, the income generated from the trade on forest resources from the autonomous councils have become a prime source of revenue. For example, BTAD was formed in 2003. Between 2005 and 2010 many satellite autonomous councils were formed. In the period 2009-10, 9839 metre square wood had been collected for industrial usage. In the next year as well, for the same reason 34,142 metre square wood had been collected. In just one year the collection of wood had increased almost three times. But no such increase in the revenue of Assam government had been seen. Rather, the revenue from total forest resources had decreased from 14,678 lacs of 2009-10 to 5869 of 2010-11. Where could the surplus revenue collected by cutting huge number of trees go appears to be a mysterious matter to the core. Be it small or big, but a part must have definitely gone to the autonomous council bodies. In these areas compared to the pace of deforestation, the rate of social forestry had been terribly less. For example, in 2011-12 among all the forest circles in Assam, maximum 3189 metre square industrial wood had been collected from West Kamrup forest circle. This region is politically under the Rabha Hasong Autonmous Council. In the same year, second highest industrial wood had been collected from Chirang forest circle of BTAD. Yet at the end of that year according to the Statistical Handbook of Assam not a single inch of forestry was accomplished in Chirang district. The proposed new policy would only encourage deforestation of this sort. The 1988 policy had it that in the hilly forest areas (not a region like Guwahati surrounded by only a few hills) at least two third of the hills would be covered by trees. However, surprisingly the new policy proposed to lower it to a mere one third.
Paying absolutely no attention to FRA or similar laws the proposed policy is all set not only to disrupt the livelihood of forest-reliant tribal people, its intent upon marring the participation of locals into forest conservation is regrettable. It is interesting to note that particularly in North-East India many tribes from very early times have been attempting to co-exist with environment and playing crucial role in the conservation process. The intention of the new policy appears to be clear in reducing their importance and prioritising merely the forest department. In recent times, there have been instances galore of the corruption inside forest department not to mention the unprecedented loot of forest resources. Hence, the proposed policy is distinctly destructive for tribal groups of people as well as biodiversity. The Union Minister might attempt to get himself rid of the proposed policy now, however, the fact that the future of forest policy will be no good is more than clear.
(Angshuman Sarma is a researcher at North Eastern Social Research Centre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Translated from Assamese by Daisy Barman
( Daisy Barman is a scribbler and translator. She can be reached at email@example.com )