In an attempt to privatise the management of over 40% of India’s forest cover, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on August 11 issued guidelines for the “Participation of Private Sector in Afforestation of Degraded Forests” for states to comment on. The guidelines express concern over the “bio diversity loss”, “hardships to local communities” and most importantly “shortage of raw materials to the industry”.  The ministry will probably discuss the plan at a meeting with the state forest department and “other stakeholders” planned for later this month.

The guidelines justify the privatisation of the country’s forests by citing “limited public funds” and “low investment, resulting in poor productivity and thereby serious ecological consequences”.

Ironically, the country witnessed an increase of 5,871 sq km in forest cover between 2011 and 2013, according to The India State of Forest Report 2013.  It said that India’s total forest and tree cover stands at 78.92 million hectares, or 24.01% of the country’s geographical area. Most of the growth has come in open forests – mixed areas of trees, shrubs and grasses in which, unlike closed forests, the tree canopies do not form a continuous closed cover.

It is in these open forests, which form 40% of India’s total forest cover, that the government intends to give private players a role. In the first phase, plots of 5,000 hectares to 10,000 hectares will be identified and will be given to private entities to grow timber and other forest produce that serves industrial purposes

Serving private interests

There are several problems with this initiative. To begin with, the plan is likely to convert chunks of natural forest into monoculture industrial plantations, with only a single species of tree being planted. Though the guidelines claim to restrict monoculture plantations, this protection is offered only for 10% to 15% of the land.  Even the most degraded forest has multiple species of plants and trees.  Now, in the name of regenerating forests, symbiotically interdependent species will be replaced by one or two varieties of trees, resulting in faster degradation and leading to the destruction of habitats for many kinds of insects, birds, mammals and plants.

The guidelines state that India faces the requirement of meeting the rising needs of industry for the forest products if the nation is to continue its path on the rapid economic development. Plantations would help supply abundant and cheap raw materials. But they will result in the environmental degradation and loss of habitat.

That is evident from recent experience. In Khammam district of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, for instance, forest cover has declined 42% between 2009 and 2011. According to The Forest Survey Report 2011, the change is due to “management interventions such as harvesting of short rotation plantations (eucalyptus) in forest areas and private holdings” along with the “forest clearances in the encroached areas”.

Attempt to annul FRA

The decision to privatise the management of forests has not come out of the blue but is a part of the series of similar developments influenced by the forest bureaucracy to nullify the attempts of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, in establishing a democratic framework of forest governance.

Popularly known as the Forests Rights Act, the legislation was an attempt to undo the “historic injustice done to forest dwelling communities”, who have been living in and conserving forests for centuries, while at the same time depending on them for their livelihood. But this changed when the British started regulating forests in the second half of the 19th century. The exclusionist policies of the British continued even after Independence through various forest policies and laws that attempted to bring one third of the country’s forest cover under the state control.

After the enactment of Forests Rights Act, amendments were issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in 2012  to clear the contentious issues such as the ownership of forest produce and treating bamboo as a minor forest produce. However, there is a continuing rift between the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs over issues such as the “dilution of veto powers of tribals” and “dilution of forest laws”. The present move by the environment ministry is also dilution of the Forest Rights Act by rejecting the forest dwellers’ rights as the “sons of the soil” and rather limiting their position to that of dependents of the state initiatives.

Over the past year, there has been a concerted effort by the forest department to dilute the Forest Rights Act and regain control over the forests. The Village Forest Rules issued by the state of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh last September contradict the statute, allowing the government to form committees that can sign MoUs with private corporations to extract forest produce. This violates the provision that gives complete powers to “gram sabhas” (which comprise all the adult members of a habitation) to call for tenders and issue trade permits to entities it considers will best serve them. The latest guidelines turn forest dwellers into the recipients of the benefits of forests rather than the owners from whom interested parties, including the government, need to take consent.

As the Ministry of Environment gears up to invite comments from the state forest departments and ask them to identify the pilot areas for the implementation of the programme, it’s time for the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to step in and see to it that nothing contravenes Constitutional provisions as well as those in the Forest Rights Act. It’s high time for the government to pause and ask whose interests is it serving. Is it the indigenous communities who have been deprived of their lawful rights or is it the corporations with their earnest slogans that claim that their social investment programmes are ushering in “sunehra kal”  – a brighter tomorrow.