- Despite repeatedly failing to ensure an overhaul of India’s forest laws over the last eight years, the government of India has now formed a task force to seek synergy between the forest norms including the present and proposed national forest policy.
- The task force has been created by the union environment ministry on March 31 and it has been asked to present its report within 60 days.
- Forest sector experts, including those who work with forest dwellers, note that the task force is heavily loaded with bureaucrats and ignores the tribal people and forest dwellers dependent on them.
The government of India has been trying to change how India’s forests are governed, especially the national forest policy, for at least six years now but has been unable to do so due to severe resistance. The Indian government has now formed a task force to develop a synergy between various laws related to the conservation and protection of forests including the regulation of trees outside forests and agroforestry.
The March 31, 2022 order by the forest policy division of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said “it has been decided to constitute a task force led by MoEFCC’s Director General of Forest to “study and analyse the National Forest Policy, 1988, the proposed National Forest Policy, proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and the current regulatory regimes on agroforestry/tree outside forests across the country.”
In October 2021, the MoEFCC had unveiled a note seeking comments on amendments in the Forest Conservation Act 1980 – a decision that environmentalists fear that the proposed amendment would result in more forest areas being opened up for projects including mining.
The government’s move, according to the order, is to “develop synergies for promotion of sustainable development and management of forests and trees outside forests in the country.” The order sought the task force’s report within 60 days by May 31, 2022.
Since May 2014, the focus of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government has been to overhaul the environment and forest laws to ensure ease of business for the industry. As part of such efforts, a special emphasis was on rules and regulations governing the forest sector.
It started with a 2014 report by a committee led by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, which suggested an overhaul of environment and forest laws. The implementation of this report, however, was shelved due to massive resistance against it. It was followed by the MoEFCC unveiling a draft National Forest Policy (NFP) in June 2016 but when the proposal was criticised for being weak in protecting forests and diluting the then-existing regulations, the environment ministry had backtracked calling it just a “study”.
Later, in 2018, the central government officially unveiled the draft of the NFP. It was under fire for alleged attempts to dilute forest management and involve the private sector in forest management. Since then, it has been revised a couple of times but, so far, no final decision has been taken on this crucial policy which once passed would guide the sector for at least the next 20 years. The first national forest policy in independent India came into being in 1952 and the second version was brought in 1988, which is still in operation.
The latest version is expected to take into account the changes that have come into laws that deal with forests, climate change, pollution and other pressing requirements of the present times since the last version. Also, a new forest policy is a significant and much-required document because it will provide an overarching and comprehensive framework and direction for the management and regulation of forests in the country.
India also has ambitious afforestation plans. Going forward, it has a target of having about 33 percent of its total geographical area under forest cover compared to about 22 percent at present. Moreover, before the 2015 Paris Agreement, India had pledged “to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e through additional forest and tree cover by 2030”.
Maharashtra-based R.R. Sahay, a retired Indian Forest Service officer, told Mongabay-India that a task force whose report has the potential to impact the entire country should have had a clearer mandate.
“Over the past few years, we have seen repeated efforts to bring a change in the norms governing the forest sector. This latest attempt means that the entire exercise of revising the National Forest Policy that started a few years back holds virtually no significance now. The task force should carry out the work in a transparent manner with the involvement of the public otherwise there could again be a lot of resistance,” said Sahay.
Asked if the committee could lead to facilitating the entry of the private sector into forest governance, he emphasised that the mandate of the task force, according to the March 31 order, is too wide and can impact a lot of things. “It talks about a synergy between different laws governing forests, agroforestry, and trees outside forest areas. This essentially could mean every part of the country. There needs to be more clarity,” Sahay said.
Task force heavily loaded with bureaucrats
According to the March 31 order, the task force will be led by MoeFCC’s Director General of Forest and Special Secretary (DGF&SS) and will have members including the Director General of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) or his nominee, MoEFCC’s Additional Director General of Forests (wildlife), and Additional Director General of Forests (Forest Conservation).
It also has other members including A.K. Bansal, a retired IFS officer from Odisha, a senior forest official from Odisha and Telangana each, and other ministry officials from the MoEFCC including Inspector General of Forests and Assistant IGF from the Forest Policy division, IGF (Forest Conservation), IGF (National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board), and IGF (Survey and Utilisation).
The other members of the task force include a representative of the Department of Agriculture and Family Welfare looking after agroforestry and bamboo, a representative from MoEFCC’s department of legal affairs, Anil Joshi of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO), forestry consultant Rajive Kumar, legal consultant Aman Jha and Vijay Dhasmana, who is an eco-restoration practitioner.
Though the order said that the task force may co-opt any new member, Sahay said, “the composition of the task force is heavily loaded in the favour of bureaucrats and government departments.”
“Though the committee can invite outside experts, it should have included states that have their own forest policies and experts working on the subject on the ground. There should have been representation from the communities who are going to be impacted by such a policy,” said Sahay, who identifies himself as a conservationist, and an urban planning and disaster management expert. Sahay was also involved in the formulation and declaration of Maharashtra’s forest policy by the state government in 2008.
Odisha-based Tushar Dash, an independent researcher on forest rights, echoed similar sentiments. He said the “constitution of the task force and its broad mandate to study and analyse NFP 1988, proposed NFP 2021, amendments in the Forest Conservation Act, etc. “comes at a time when the MoEFCC’s proposal for making sweeping changes in the forest and environmental laws has been widely opposed for their far-reaching impact on the legal rights of tribal people and forest-dwelling communities as well as on the forest conservation. “
For instance, in April 2021, the Indian government made efforts to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927 despite facing a failed attempt towards that in 2017.
“The changes attempted or proposed in the forest laws have already undermined the structure of democratic governance of forests established by the Forest Rights Act 2006 and PESA … and have become a potential source for legal conflicts showing also in the increase in land conflicts in India and violation of forest rights,” Dash told Mongabay-India.
He highlighted that the March 31 order mentions NFP 2021 even as this revised version was never made public. “Such confusion makes the intent of the task force unclear and problematic,” Dash noted.
Banner image: The government of India has been trying to change how India’s forests are governed, especially the national forest policy, for at least six years now. Photo by Nandhu Kumar/ Pixabay.