The draft National Forest Policy 2018, put out by the environment ministry for public comments, is by and large well-conceptualised though some of its contents can be controversial. Coming 30 years after the promulgation of the last script, the new policy seeks to modernise the forest development strategies with an eye on climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. This objective, more importantly, is sought to be met through the participation of local communities (read forest dwellers), which constitute the major stakeholders in preserving and tapping forest resources for their livelihood. The policy also takes note of the growing human-wildlife conflict and moots both short- and long-term measures to avert it. Significantly, it vows to protect steep slopes, catchments of rivers and other water bodies, and geologically and ecologically sensitive stretches by restraining their diversion for non-forestry use.
The government had, in fact, come up with a forest policy draft in 2016 but had to withdraw it hurriedly following all-round criticism. The present version, thankfully, drops many of the provisions of that draft, including the one concerning the introduction of a “green tax” to raise funds for forest development. The emphasis on increasing overall tree cover by planting them along roads, on waste and degraded lands, and under agro-forestry systems seems well-placed and is welcome.
But there are many downsides. Though the new policy retains the coveted target of bringing one-third of the country’s geographical area under forests, this ambitious goal is almost certain to be missed due to land constraints. Also, the proposed creation of two national level bodies — National Community Forest Management Mission and National Board of Forestry — seems ill-advised. It would lead to multiplicity of authorities and proliferation of forest bureaucracy to the detriment of this vital sector. What has dismayed the environmentalists most is the suggested involvement of the private sector in afforestation and reforestation of degraded lands in and outside the forest areas falling under the jurisdiction of public sector forest agencies. The underlying idea is to produce commercially important timber, which is now imported in sizable quantities to meet the local demand. Environment activists view this as a move to hand over forest lands to industrial houses even though a section of forestry experts deems this a prudent step to harness the commercial potential of forests, much of which remains untapped at present.
This aside, the human rights activists also nurture misgivings over the policy’s proposition to involve the proposed National Community Forest Management Mission in the task of promoting participatory forest management. They fear that this will undermine the role of the joint forest management committees as well as the tribal communities, which have been living off the forests and looking after them for generations. Besides, it may also infringe the rights granted to the forest-inhabiting tribes and gram sabhas (village councils) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The government will be well-advised to consider some of the proposals carefully before taking a final call on the policy. The overarching objective of the new policy has to be to invigorate the forests and maintain their vital plant and wildlife biodiversity.