[All stakeholders including public/private organisations, experts and concerned institutions are requested to send the comments on draft National Forest Policy, 2018.
Comments should be specific – indicating para of policy document – and should be sent to [email protected]/ [email protected]/ [email protected] by 14 April 2018. “Draft National Forest Policy, 2018” must be the subject name; also provide your name, organisation name and contact details in the mail.]
The corporate sector may now be allowed to grow, harvest and sell trees on government-owned forest land if the new National Forest Policy drafted by the Union Government is approved. This would replace the existing National Forest Policy (NFP) laid down in 1988.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has put out the new draft for public comment till April 14.
The new draft of National Forest Policy proposes climate change mitigation through sustainable forest management. Although it aims to bring a minimum of one-third of India’s geographical area under forest cover through scientific interventions and by establishing stringent rules, the enforcement of this policy would also mean opening up government-owned forests for industries.
New policy may open forest lands to industries
The previous government had made conscious efforts to protect the rights of the 300 million tribals and forest dwellers who heavily depend on forest lands for their livelihood. In 2006, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government passed a law – the Forest Rights Act (FRA) – to further strengthen the rights of tribals over forests.
The proposed new policy says that the old policy needs to be replaced since new challenges have emerged in the forestry sector and that the policy needs revision in the context of “low quality and low productivity of our natural forests, impacts of climate change, human-wildlife conflict, intensifying water crisis… and the continuously declining investments in the sector”.
In the new policy, there are provisions to increase the carbon sink, promote urban greens, curb the occurrence of forest fires by mapping vulnerable areas, developing early warning systems and afforestation in catchment areas for river rejuvenation and water recycling.
But the key change in the new draft policy which has proved to be the bone of contention is the one which can open up natural forests for private plantation.
However, if the 1988 policy is to be considered, it strictly prohibits private plantation in all natural forests irrespective of their density. It says, ”Natural forests serve as a gene pool resource and help to maintain ecological balance. Such forests will not, therefore, be made available to industries for undertaking plantation and for any other activities.”
Previous failed attempts
This is not the first time an attempt has been made to open forest lands to industry. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre attempted to do to this in 2015 as well when it passed guidelines and asked the states to take appropriate steps in this regard. However, the 1988 policy did not permit the plan to proceed.
Many industries which use forest produce as raw materials have been pushing for policies and laws which would allow them to use government land. However, these attempts were thwarted by the government twice, once in 1998 and the other time in 2008.
In August 2015, the environment ministry had sent out guidelines saying that the government investment in forestry is proving to be insufficient to improve the productivity and the quality of India’s forests and hence private investment was required. These guidelines, which were leaked to the media suffered a major backlash from tribal activists who feared that the plan would lead to leasing out of forest lands traditionally used by the tribals to the private companies.
To ensure that the new plan is not withdrawn on the basis of Forest Rights Act, as it was done in 2016, it ensures maintaining “synergy” between “Gram Sabha” and the joint forest management committee.
“As far as community forest resources management under FRA is concerned, the new policy will address the same under participatory forest management and the same will be addressed through the proposed community forest management mission the policy document says,” says the draft NFP, 2018.
New policy faces criticism from activists
The increasing consumption of the country owing to the rapid increase in population combined with government’s decision and low-productivity of forests over last two decades has led to increase in imports. Using scarcity of timber as the reason, the government is pushing for opening forest lands for industries.
The Centre for Science and Environment report showed that trees outside forests and agroforestry can meet India’s demand if promoted properly.
Several experts have spoken against this new policy. Ajay Kumar Saxena, an expert on forestry issues of CSE told Scroll, “Instead of handing over forests to the industry, the government could work on promoting agroforestry, that has the potential of significantly increasing the income of 20 million farmers.”
While speaking to the The Times of India, Saxena said, “The draft NFP 2018 mentions major forestry issues ailing the forest sector, but it doesn’t provide answers to them as to how these objectives will be achieved considering the competitive demands for forestlands. It’s worth noting here that most of the objectives mentioned in earlier 1988 policy have not been met so far.”
He also added, “This is quite disheartening as FRA is a major movement in forest areas at present and its progress has been very lackadaisical over a decade of its implementation in India.”
Stalin Dayanand, from Vanashakti who has been working on forest conservation in Mumbai said, “This is another move to hand forests to the corporations and will lead to further destruction of the forests.
To read the National Forest Policy draft document click here.