Attack on India's forests and forest communities: Draft National Forest Policy 2018 -Soumitra Ghosh
India’s forests are officially on sale. Forests, which are ecological and cultural constructs intrinsically linked with human communities that have been living in and using those for ages, have turned into mere repositories of ‘products’ such as timber and ‘ecosystem services’ that could be quantified, valued, priced and exchanged—or so the Draft National Forest Policy prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change(MoEF & CC) would have us believe. By focussing on ‘products’ and ‘services’ instead of the bond between humans and their forest landscapes, the draft Policy betrays its market bias—it becomes clear even from the preamble that forests are being seen not as life support systems but economic entities, subjects of extraction for commercial gains.
Historically speaking, there is not much of a surprise in this. Forests in India and elsewhere in the world have been ceaselessly exploited and ravaged for commercial purposes, more so in the wake of colonialization. These have also been perceived as ‘evil’, ‘dark’ and ‘barbaric’—meant ultimately to be cleared and reclaimed as revenue-yielding land. Forests qua forests meant little or no value, hence the need to add or create such values—primarily by replacing natural vegetation with plantations of ‘valuable’ timber-bearing trees. The colonial foresters called the process scientific management of forests; unless ‘managed’ forests cannot be made productive.
The 2018 draft policy admits as much: “The forest policies of 1894 and 1952 have stressed on the production and revenue generation aspects of the forests”, it says. The National Forest Policy, 1988, in contrast, aimed “to ensure environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance including atmospheric equilibrium which are vital for sustenance of all life forms, human, animals and plants….recognized that derivation of direct economic benefits must be subordinated to this principal aim”, it goes on to observe. Not that the policy led to major legislative changes immediately. On the contrary, though it recognized the central role of forest communities such as forest-dwelling scheduled tribes as well as other forest dwellers in forest conservation, besides recognizing their access and use of forests, the policy goals came into direct conflict with the existing legal regime that continued to deny any role for forest communities in forest governance.
The 2018 policy mulls a return to the glorious days of production forestry; only, it talks of new products such as ‘ecosystem services’(a bundle/package of potential ‘value’-yielding functions of any natural ecosystem) as well. The forests have become low-producing, the new policy says: “the low quality and low productivity of our natural forests…have been the issues of serious concern…for biodiversity conservation and the need to enhance forest ecosystem services, through new technological advancements and the continuously declining investments in the sector present new challenges for forest management in the country”. Unfortunately, increased investments in forestry sector and ‘ecosystem services’ ‘enhanced through new technological advancements’ are not ecological issues at all—these do not ensure ecological security or any improvement in the quality of life of millions of impoverished and generally beleaguered forest dwellers of this country.
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