REVIEW OF NATIONAL FOREST POLICY, 1988 IS THE DESIDERATUM OF THE HOUR
“The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe-man who destroys it.”
The forests of India are governed by the National Forest policy, 1988 which demands for an up gradation at an alarming haste. Key policy related to forests and their preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilisation and restoration are missing and it is also very appalling that there is no precise definition of a forest in the given draft. In the case of Yashwant Stone works v State of U.P., the Allahabad High court adopted the definition of a forest as given by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as “all lands bearing vegetative association demarcated by trees of any size exploited or not, capable of producing wood or other forest products, of exerting an influence on the climate or on the water regime or providing shelter for livestock and wild life”. The court also relied on the definition given in Encyclopaedia where a forest was described as ‘a community technically known as an eco-system in which tress are the dominant form of vegetation but in which other plants, animals, soil and the area play an important role.’ Forests have been suffering a terrible depletion in the past few years. Continuous increase in demand of fuel and timber with inadequate protection measures and treating forests only as a revenue earning strategy has made it hefty.
The Indian forest Act, 1927 was enacted for the purpose of consolidating laws relating to the forest and also to include certain provisions for private sector. In 2019 an amendment of a zero draft was unveiled to the IFA, 2019 which came under heavy criticism as it gave more power to the forest department authorities, including giving them the power to shoot people, and undermining the role of forest dwellers and thus it was withdrawn by the government in November 2019. It was quite intelligible that the government intended to have the maximum power to stay with the forest officials while the rights of the people living in the forest and a clear policy for the forest was being brushed away. Thus there is an imminent need to make forest management more transparent and democratic.
New Forest Policy yet to be Contemplated
The birth of the National forest policy is dated back to 12th May, 1952 when the ministry of Food and Agriculture, GOI enunciated a Forest Policy to be followed in the management of State Forests in the country. In 1976, the subject of forests was transferred from state list to the concurrent list through the constitution of India (42nd amendment) Act. Finally, the National Forest Policy, 1988 was introduced which emphasized on a new strategy of forest conservation in view of an ever increasing demand for the forest produce. Recently the Director General of Forests has advocated for the amendment of the Policy. The recommendations are based on a research paper published in 2016 in the Natural Resources Forum, a United Nations Sustainable Development Journal. It called for a sustainable forest management based on certification and a policy focused on restoration, conservation and production, equally. It has been almost 40 years since the draft has not been updated. A new forest Policy is very much required to accomplish the objectives of maintaining environmental stability through preservation and conserving the natural heritage of the country. There is also a need to check the soil erosion and denudation in the catchment areas of rivers, lakes and reservoirs and also to encourage efficient utilization of forest produce and maximising substitution of wood.
The principal aim of a Forest policy should be to ensure environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance. The derivation of direct economic benefit must be subordinated to this principal. After an exhaustive consultation processes with the major stakeholders, the draft National Forest Policy, 2019 was prepared. The basic thrust of the draft is conservation, protection and management of forests along with safeguarding the interest of tribals and forest-dependent people, to which a lot of experts disagreed. One of the main problem of the policy is that it had set wrong priorities for forests i.e. Carbon storage and water management. Another problem is that too much emphasis is being put on afforestation for water management. Large scale afforestation cannot solve the problem of less water in rivers as forests do not play a significant role in drying of rivers and other water related issues. Instead, longstanding traditional approaches such as dams and reservoir should be focused more.
The National Forest Policy, 1988 has several other problems but the (new) draft policy is even more problematic as it detracts from the main concern. Another major concern is that, there is no proper positioning of the rights of tribal communities and forest dwellers over the forest resources. Apart from the flip-flop over the amendment to IFA 1927 in 2019, following a SC order, the issue of eviction of tribal people and forest dwellers from forests after the rejection of their claims, gained traction. The order by the apex court in February 2019 came just a couple of months before the parliamentary elections in April-May 2019. The order could have impacted nearly two million tribal families – about 8-10 million people – across the country. It is very important to understand that local communities i.e. the tribals and other forest dwellers are not just stakeholders but the actual right holder. The forest department should not make any such regulations that Negatively impacts their lives.
The focus of the forest policy is on increasing privatisation, industrialisation and using the resources for commercial use and not on the actual wildlife conservation. The national goal is to have a minimum of one- third of the total land of the country under forest or tree cover and at present, around 25% of India’s geographical area is under forest cover. There is a dire need for proper schemes and projects to enhance forest cover and productivity of the forest through the application of scientific and technical inputs. The symbolic relationship between the tribals and forests, customary rights and interests of such people should be kept in mind. The lives of tribal and the poor living within and near forest revolves around forests. Their domestic requirements of fuel – wood, fodder, minor forests produce and construction timber should be the first charge on forest produce.
Green belts should be raised in industrial areas. In India we do not have any exclusive green belt policy as in other countries. This will help to control air pollution as trees help in removing carbon dioxide and other pollutants from air and by release of oxygen into the air thereby improving air quality. Apart from this green belt also reduces the intensity of sound, helps in soil erosion control and containing water run offs. Land laws should be modified so as to facilitate and motivate individuals and institutions to undertake tree farming and grow fodder plants, grasses and legumes on their own land. Wherever possible, degraded lands should be made available for this purpose on the basis of a tree patta-scheme with regard to land grant rules and land ceiling rules. It is important to note that encroachment on forest lands has been on the increase. This trend has to be arrested and effective action needs to be taken to prevent its continuance. There should be no regularisation of the existing encroachments. The incidence of forest fires and grazing is also high in the country. Improved and modern management practices should be adopted to deal with the same.
As far as possible, a forest based industry should raise the raw material for meeting its own requirements, preferably by establishment of a direct relationship between the factory and the individual who can grow and the raw material by supporting the individuals with inputs including credit, constant technical advice and finally harvesting and transport services. Forest conservation programme cannot succeed without the willing support of and cooperation of the people. It is essential, therefore, to inculcate the people, a direct interest in forest, their development and conservation and make them conscious of the value of trees, wildlife and nature in general. This can be achieved by the involvement of educational institutions. Apart from this an appropriate legislation should be undertaken, supported by adequate infrastructure, at the centre and state levels in order to implement the policy effectively. The objectives of this revised policy cannot be achieved without the investment of financial and other resources on a substantial scale. Lastly, forest should not be looked upon as a source of revenue. Forests are renewable natural resource. They are national asset to be protected and enhanced for the well being of the people and the nation.
A a third year student at Hidayatullah National Law University, who has keen interest in Environmental Law and Constitutional Law.