Whose forests, whose rights?

India’s forest sector, at crossroads

India’s forest sector was in a major turmoil last year. This was following the government‘s proposed revisions to the National Forest Policy and the Indian Forest Act and the Supreme Court‘s order of February 13, 2019 pertaining to The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). The move raised a huge public outcry forcing the government to request a temporary stay.

The proposed revisions were resisted as they signalled a move that intended to bring forest governance increasingly under government control, encouraged privatisation of India’s natural resources by creating 'private forests', vested more control in the hands of forest departments, and took away the rights of the forest dwellers or forest communities who have traditionally occupied the forests and were acknowledged as important stakeholders in forest management in the FRA Act of 2006.

Why have these conflicts resurfaced? What is the root cause of these debates and conflicts? The paper ‘Understanding current forest policy debates through multiple lenses: The case of India’ published in the journal Ecology, Economy and Society–the INSEE Journal argues that forest issues in India are multilayered and complex and conventional perspectives from the point of view of environmental economics and common property resource theory are inadequate to address the challenges arising in managing forests in India. The roots of the current controversies can be traced to forest governance practised during the British rule, which continues to impact/influence how forests are governed in the present times.

Forest management in India, the challenges

Western scientific forestry placed an economic value on forests, where trees were valued for the marketable product they yielded like timber. However, the same narrow principle cannot be applied to tropical forests in India, which are complex socio-ecological entities. Indian forests are highly diverse and have been  historically used by both tribal and non tribal communities. They mainly function as local level common pool resources, as access to forests cannot be easily controlled by individuals nor by the state. Use of forest resources involves interactions among local communities at different levels and benefits from forests are also accompanied by local dis-benefits such as crop damage or human-wildlife conflict. Thus, forest management involves trade-offs between different stakeholders located at different levels and scales.

The problem of how to manage forests thus is not just one of how to manage a complex ‘common pool resource‘ but also for ‘what purpose’ and ‘for whom‘.

Looking into the past to understand the present

During the colonial rule, the British government took over India’s forests and managed them under the Indian Forest Act (IFA) of 1878, which was revised in 1927. The Act created two main categories of forests— Reserved Forests (RF) and Protected Forests (PF), managed by the Imperial Forest Department (FD). The main focus of the forest department in colonial times was to generate revenue through timber and softwood production. Forest dwellers were deprived of their livelihoods in the process as shifting cultivation and grazing were banned.

The same understanding of forests continued after independence when the area under RFs and PFs was expanded and their ownership was nationalised among princely states and  zamindari or other forms of ownership. The newly formed states also continued with the same IFA, and the imperial FD became state FDs, run by the Indian forest service. The Wildlife Protection Act was passed, and wildlife conservation replaced timber production, but the conservation policy continued to exclude local communities.

Many local communities thus became encroachers on their own land and were forced to resort to theft, leading to punishments, exploitation and further alienation from the forests that they belonged to. While the situation changed to some extent after independence when local communities gained concessions to enter forests, access rights helped very little without management rights, thus leading to degradation of forests.

From production to environmental and local benefits: a paradigm shift

The NFP88 however marked a paradigm shift in how forests began to be viewed in India as it was for the first time that the priorities of forestry were shifted from production to environmental and local benefits, and the idea of participatory management was introduced.

However, Joint Forest Management programmes (JFM) in the 1990s did nothing to change the situation at the ground level as it had no statutory backing. They did very little in terms of giving autonomy to communities to manage their forest resources and the JFM committees, areas and implementation extent were all controlled by the forest departments. Local communities were still viewed as encroachers on their lands and cultivation and habitation rights remained elusive, till a Supreme Court order in February 2002 triggered widespread evictions, leading to nation-wide protests.

The FRA was however, one step further as it focused on redressing the problem of unsettled cultivation and habitation rights of forest-dwellers in improperly notified RFs and PFs, by allowing them to claim individual forest rights. It also went on to include provisions to redress the denial of forest access and management rights to forest dwellers by introducing Community Resource (CR) rights and Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights that also gave communities a say in denying forest diversion.

The FRA has helped greatly in taking power away from state bureaucracies into the hands of the communities. It focuses on community forest management based on sustainability and conservation and ensures that communities will not be displaced from protected areas unless demonstrated through due process. The implementation of the FRA, however, has been mired with conflict and bureaucratic resistance leading to the controversial interim court orders of February 2019.

What could be the way forward

The paper argues that while forest bureaucracy has been consistently trying to undermine reforms in forest governance, the need for community level forest governance is more urgent than ever. The complex multi-stakeholder and multi-scale nature of the forest resource implies that community-level forest governance needs some form of regulation. But this regulation needs to be accompanied by checks and balances to safeguard against its abuse taking into consideration the colonial roots of India’s forest bureaucracy. Thus newer and more democratically accountable structures need to be thought of. 

Reforming funding mechanisms, such as the accumulated compensatory afforestation funds, and granting rights to operate and tax tourism would also greatly help communities who would want to make a sustainable living from the forests while protecting them and engage with markets.

A combination of structural changes and grassroot efforts will need to be made to ensure better representation, equitable sharing and a voice for the marginalised communities, the ones most closer to and dependent on the forests for their livelihoods.

The paper can be accessed here