Bhopal: Unable to control illegal encroachment on forest land, and owing to the paucity of funds and manpower to maintain India’s second-largest forest, the Madhya Pradesh Government has planned on privatising forests.
The state Forest Department has prepared a 12-page concept note which says that 37,420 sq kms of land under the department constitutes degraded forests. It said that an amount of Rs 56,130 crores will be required for its reforestation.
It is very difficult for the state government to manage such a large area for reforestation. Hence, an alternative approach is needed to achieve the expected results of reforestation and prevent degradation of these areas, the draft said.
The department had called for suggestions over its first-of-a-kind concept note. It had conducted a webinar on October 7 and took suggestions from experts and private investors for the ‘Privatisation of Forest Draft’. Nearly 25 representatives and officials of from the paper, pulp and cement industries have participated in it, shown their keen interest in investment and have given their suggestions, said a senior official of the state Forest Department.
“The Forest Department is preparing a draft to use 37,420 sq kms of non-productive forest land for commercial use in a bid to reforest and develop it,” said Rajesh Shrivastava, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), State Forest Department.
“Cement, paper and pulp industries have shown an interest to invest in forest lands during the webinar. Anyone who is under permissible laws is welcome here,” he added.
Private players can be contracted over a 30-year-period which could be extended after a review by competent authorities. The forest department will have complete authority to cancel the contract, if any misconduct is reported, the draft outlined.
As per the Forest Survey of India (FSI) report, 2018, the state reportedly has the largest green cover spread at 77,482.49 sq kms, which is expanding each year. However, the state government has been slashing the department’s budget, which was Rs 1,160 crore in 2016-17 to Rs 934 crore in 2018-19.
In addition, cases of illegal encroachment on forest land and log theft have also surged. Keeping these in mind, the department has chalked out a plan to privatise the forests.
Justifying its need, the Forest Department official said that private investors can play a significant role in bringing about innovation in the forest sector by adopting new technologies and that it would increase the productivity of forest areas.
Spelling out the objectives of private investment in the forest land, the draft says that it will increase employment opportunities for local communities. “To support wood-based industries, under the Atmnirbhar Bharat initiative, it will provide raw materials locally instead of imports,” the draft stated.
“The participation of private investors in forest areas will reduce dependence of local communities on government funds and communities will get an opportunity to become self-sufficient,” said Shrivastava, adding that increased employment in the short term and the income from forest produce in the long term will strengthen local livelihoods. However, the idea is still in its infancy.
In the end, the draft advises a three-party agreement between the Forest Department, Gram Sabha and private entities. The Government will take a royalty which will be used to develop nearby localities and maintain the forest. Prior permission of the Gram Sabha will also be required for allowing private investment.
Once the state Forest Department prepares the draft – likely by November this year – it will be sent to the Chief Minister’s office for final approval, the officer said. Later, the proposal will be sent to the environment ministry at the Centre for a final nod.
The draft highlighted that the Forest Rights Act. 2006, and the M.P. Panchayat Raj Avam Gram Swaraj Adhiniyam, 1993, are acting as hindrances. It is where the Centre needs to issue new guidelines to facilitate the process.
“The Union Government will take the final call on the privatisation of forests because it deals with a number of forest laws,” Shrivastava said.
“Implementing this project is a long haul, but private investment can entirely change the face of forests, especially when the state has the second largest forest and is struggling for funds,” he added.
To facilitate private investment in rehabilitation of degraded forests, there is a need to amend the code to make provisions for more innovative approaches in reforestation and harvesting as per proposals of the investors. The authority to sanction these reforestation projects should be assigned to the state government, the draft demands.
However, news of privatisation of forest lands has not gone down well with forest rights activists.
“The Revenue Department of the State government already has plenty of vacant land to set up factories. However, the idea of establishing factories in forests, including cement factories, is highly objectionable and I will oppose it,” said Ajay Dubey, a forest rights activist.