The Union government has drafted a new National Forest Policy. If approved, the policy will allow the corporate sector to grow, harvest and sell trees on government-owned forest lands. So far, this is explicitly banned under the existing National Forest Policy, which was laid down in 1988.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre has been wanting to open forest lands to industry since 2015, when it passed guidelines to that effect and asked states to take the initiative. But the 1988 policy did not allow that plan to proceed. Government guidelines need to adhere to the nation’s laws and policies, and the 2015 guidelines were in contravention of the 1988 forest policy and did not have an explicit legal basis either. If the new draft National Forest Policy is approved, however, it will permit the government to amend environment laws and allow industry to take over patches of forest lands.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has put the new draft National Forest Policy up for public comments till April 14. The ministry did not respond to’s email queries asking about the reasons for allowing private plantations in the forests and its impacts on the forests and the forest dwellers.

A long-standing demand

The National Forest Policy governs the formulation of all laws and schemes related to forestry, including forest protection, management and the use of forests – such as for production of wood and by forest dwellers.

Several industries that use timber and forest produce as raw materials, such as the paper and pulp and wood-board industry, have demanded for decades that India’s forest policy allow government forest lands to be opened to industry – which they term a “reform”. The first such proposal was mooted in 1998 and then in 2008. But each time, the proposals were shot down by the government of the time.

More than 300 million tribals and other forest dwellers in India are either directly or indirectly dependent on forest lands for their livelihood. Successive governments have therefore chosen not to let industry take over green patches to protect the rights and interests of these citizens. In 2006, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government passed a law – the Forest Rights Act – to further strengthen the rights of tribals over forests, which colonial-era laws had turned into government property.

Provisions of the new policy

The draft forest policy 2018 argues that new challenges have emerged in the forestry sector since 1988, when the existing policy was drafted. It stresses that there is a need to revise the forest policy 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”.

To address these, the draft policy adds provisions to increase the carbon sink of forests (that is, increase their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), promote plantations in the catchment areas of water bodies, prevent forest fires and promote greenery in urban areas. But the government has already been implementing these programmes, and most other provisions of the draft policy mimic the 1988 policy.

But one key change proposed in the draft policy holds the potential to open up natural forests for private plantations. It reads: “Public private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests [emphasis added].”

Extract of the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 allowing public private partnership to grow plantations in forests.

Degraded forests are green lands that have less than 40% tree canopy density, according to the government’s definition. According to the latest Forest Survey of India report, India has more than 34 million hectares – or more than 40% of its total green cover – of degraded forests. This includes natural and government-controlled forests as well as private plantations.

In contrast, the 1988 policy banned private plantations in all natural forests, irrespective of their density. It reads: “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.”

Extract of the 1988 National Forest Policy that banned the use of natural forests for plantations by private parties.

The policy allowed traditional forest dwellers to use forest resources for sustenance. For forest-based industries, it prescribed that raw material should be extracted from captive plantations.

The failed earlier attempt

In August 2015, the environment ministry sent guidelines to the states for “participation of private sector in afforestation of degraded forests”. The guidelines argued that the government investment in forestry was not enough to improve the productivity and quality of India’s forests and that was why attracting private investment was important.

The guidelines laid out a process of leasing degraded forest lands to private parties for afforestation and extracting timber through open competitive bidding. The government had planned to first lease out the patches of forests with less than 10% canopy cover and then extend the scheme to forests with up to 40% canopy cover.

The government had not put the guidelines in the public domain but they were leaked to the media. Tribal rights activists then opposed the move as they feared the plan would lead to the leasing out of forest lands traditionally used by forest dwellers to private companies in violation of the Forest Rights Act. This Act recognises the traditional rights of forest dwellers to forest land and its resources. The guidelines were also of concern because they said that tribal communities would be allowed to access non-timber forest produce from just 10% to15% of the leased-out area, again a violation of the Forest Rights Act.

The guidelines even suggested that forest conservation rules would be tweaked to make it possible to lease forests to private parties for plantations.

The government’s 2015 plan failed to move forward because the 1988 forest policy did not permit it. The new draft policy, if finalised, will give the government the opportunity to revive the plan.

Who harvests the forests?

With a growing economy, India’s consumption of wood has been increasing. Currently, the country uses close to 69 million cubic metres of wood annually, according to a 2017 report by the Delhi-based non-profit, the Centre for Science and Environment. Of this, about 68% wood is sourced from private plantations and agroforestry farms outside forests. Less than 5% of the wood is sourced from natural forests while the remainder comes from imports.

Specific orders of the Supreme Court, government decisions and low productivity of forests over the last two decades has led to a decrease in the sourcing of timber from India’s natural forests, and an increase in imports. According to the Centre for Science and Environment report, timber imports have been growing at an annual rate of 9.3% since 2011.

The government has been using the scarcity of timber to push its case for opening up forest lands to industry. The Centre for Science and Environment report, however, showed that trees outside forests, and agroforestry, if promoted, can meet India’s demand for timber to a large extent. Agroforestry is a land use management system in which trees are grown by farmers alongside crops.

However, government regulations that make it difficult to grow timber on private land and the lack of market support to timber farmers have jeopardised the growth of agroforestry.

“Instead of handing over forests to the industry, the government could work on promoting agroforestry,” said Ajay Kumar Saxena, programme manager (forestry) at the Centre for Science and Environment. “That has the potential of significantly increasing the income of 20 million farmers.”