Thirty years after the last policy draft, the fourth edition of India’s Forest Policy has been cleared by various ministries at a meeting held on November 21, 2019. In the latest meeting, representatives from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) have given a go ahead to the policy, which was first made public in 2018, as reported by Down to Earth.
The draft needs to be taken into account in the background of the commitment by India to sequester carbon dioxide emissions to the tune of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes additionally by the year 2030 from forestry sector. However, even though the draft was cleared by the ministries on November 21, the final document has not been made public even after a week.
It is the fourth forest policy, with the previous forest policies being introduced in 1894, 1952 and 1988. Government officials have stated that the focus of the policy will be on water conservation, followed by climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration and finally to secure livelihoods.
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As per reports, MoTA raised the issue of implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) and the provision of the consent of Gram Sabha before forest diversion process during the meeting which cleared the draft.
It should be noted that several contentions had been raised over the draft in 2018, one of which was concerned with increased production forestry and focus on plantations. Both these issues have been flagged as problem areas of forest management by ecologists and forest dwelling communities alike. The Tribal Affairs Ministry and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) had also pointed out that the policy does not protect the interests of tribal people. Speaking to NewsClick, Kanchi Kohli from the Centre of Policy Research, said, “The new forest policy should emphasise on conserving existing forests and send out signals against indiscriminate forest diversions.”
The Modi government had come up with a forest policy draft in 2016 but had to withdraw it following criticism from across quarters over the provisions such as the introduction of a “green tax” to raise funds for forest development. It had also proposed creation of two national level bodies, National Community Forest Management Mission and National Board of Forestry, which were contended by environmental activists on the grounds of “proliferation of forest bureaucracy”. The environmentalists had also resisted the involvement of the private sector in afforestation and reforestation of degraded lands in and outside the forest areas falling under the jurisdiction of public sector forest agencies. This was seen as a move to produce commercially important timber, which is now imported in large quantities to meet the local demand.
Another major contention was the proposition to involve the National Community Forest Management Mission in the task of promoting participatory forest management. It was felt that the move will lead to undermining of the role of the joint forest management committees as well as the tribal communities.
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The rights of the forest dwelling communities are in focus with regular hearings going on in the Supreme Court over the eviction of a million tribals from their lands. In addition to this, the government has also taken a U-turn on the draft changes to the Indian Forests Act. The announcement comes ahead of the crucial Assembly polls in Jharkhand scheduled for December.