The Union tribal affairs ministry has criticised the environment ministry’s draft National Forest Policy, contending that it will promote the privatisation of forests and undermine the rights of communities who live in them.

In a letter to the environment secretary CK Mishra on June 19, Leena Nair, the tribal affairs secretary, noted that the environment ministry does not have “exclusive jurisdiction” to frame policies related to forests. The environment ministry is required to consult the tribal affairs ministry as well as forest dwellers before drafting the policy, she said.

“The idea to bring out a forest policy is welcome, unfortunately, the policy has disregarded the traditional custodians and conservatives of the forests, namely, tribals,” Nair wrote, adding that there was a “general impression” that the draft policy “gives a thrust to increased privatisation, industrialisation and diversion of forest resources for commercialisation”.

She added: “It is also felt that the public private partnership models for afforestation and agroforestry detailed in the policy will open up the areas over which tribals and forest dwellers have legal rights under FRA,” referring to the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

The draft National Forest Policy 2018 was released in March to replace the existing National Forest Policy of 1988. While the existing policy explicitly bans the private sector from growing, harvesting or selling trees in state-owned natural forests, the draft policy allows such activity under the private-public partnership model. It thus falls foul of the Forest Rights Act, which lays down that traditional lands of the Adivasis and other forest dwellers cannot be used for any purpose without their consent.

The draft policy was up for public consultation for a month and received about 700 comments, according to officials in the environment ministry. They included Nair’s letter, which has been reviewed by

But nearly 10 days after receiving Nair’s letter, the Hindustan Times reported that Siddhanta Das, director general of forests in the environment ministry, denied the possibility of dropping the controversial clause related to private plantations from the draft policy.

Asked about the tribal affairs ministry’s objection to the provision, Das told that his ministry is incorporating comments from all stakeholders in the final draft. “They have written a letter to us,” he said, referring to the tribal affairs ministry. “We are taking their comments into consideration. There are some misconceptions about a few provisions in the policy. We would clarify those in the final draft.”

The final draft is expected to be released in about a month, Das added.

Threatening Adivasi rights

The National Forest Policy governs the formulation of laws and schemes related to forestry, including the protection, management and use of forests, including by the communities living in them.

Industries that use timber and other forest produce as raw material, such as paper and plywood mills, have long been demanding that India open its natural forests for private plantations. The 1988 forest policy, however, prescribes that industry should extract raw material from captive plantations, leaving natural forests to be preserved for their environmental benefit and for the sustenance of traditional forest dwellers. India has more than 30 crore Adivasis and other forest dwellers directly or indirectly dependent on forests for their livelihood.

Since the 1988 policy was adopted, successive governments have chosen not to let industry take over natural forests, lest they undermine the rights and interests of the marginalised communities dwelling in them. In 2006, the Congress-led government passed the Forest Rights Act to further strengthen the rights of Adivasis over forests, which the colonial rulers had turned into government property.

In 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party government broke with this long-held position, issuing guidelines to states for “participation of private sector in the afforestation of degraded forests”. The guidelines laid out a process of leasing, through competitive bidding, degraded forests to private entities for afforestation and extracting timber. Degraded forests are defined by the government as green lands with less than 40% tree canopy density. India has 3.4 crore hectares of degraded forests, amounting to over 40% of its total green cover, according to the Forest Survey of India.

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

Reversing ‘paradigm shift’

It is this apprehension that informs the tribal affairs ministry’s objection to the draft policy. As Nair’s letter pointed out, “The national forest policy [of 1988] had brought a shift in forest governance (by recognising symbiotic relationship between tribals and forests) which is unfortunately sought to be undone by the Draft National Forest Policy 2018.”

Nair contended that the draft policy also did not take into account the “paradigm shift” in forest governance brought about by the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, which gives the gram sabha authority over forests in Adivasi areas, and the Forest Rights Act. “These two legislations are critical for the overall development of Scheduled Tribes and also make tribal community a key stakeholder in the management of resources as well as biodiversity conservation by ensuring the community-based forest governance,” she wrote.

Questioning the environment ministry’s authority to draft policies affecting Adivasis without consulting the tribal affairs ministry, Nair wrote: “The exclusive jurisdiction of the MoEFCC [Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change], including legislation relating to the rights of forest dwelling scheduled tribes on forest lands, was extinguished [in 2006] and the same matters were brought under the purview of MoTA [Ministry of Tribal affairs].”

She was referring to a change made in 2006 to the Allocation of Business Rules of 1961. The rules lay out the functions of various ministries. “In view of the above, I request that, in future, before framing any policy concerned with the forest dwelling communities, the views of MoTA are taken on board in advance,” she added.

Nair implored the environment ministry to call a meeting with representatives of forest-dwelling communities before finalising the draft policy as it greatly affects their interests. She has since retired.