India’s fast-depleting forests are the site of a growing conflict. On the one hand are environmental, wildlife and ecological concerns. On the other, the lives and livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands who depend on forest produce. Until now, worries about the latter have bested efforts to conserve forests, helped by government apathy and the failure to enforce conservation policies. The environment ministry’s revised guidelines on critical wildlife habitats, if implemented properly, have a chance of changing that.
Statistically, forests constitute one-fifth of India’s land space. But rapid population growth, mismanagement and deforestation have left much of that statistic without green cover. Humans have steadily encroached on forests, pushing some species such as the tiger to the brink of extinction. One can now safely say that man is the king of the jungle.
The new guidelines attempt to resolve the situation by marking national parks and sanctuaries as “inviolate” critical wildlife habitats—no-go zones for humans. Why is this needed? In India today, the trade-off between human livelihood and wildlife conservation is so acute that coexistence is no longer an option. Most forest dwellers exist at levels of subsistence where the marginal propensity to consume is very high. In other words, every additional unit of natural resource available—in this case, forests—is likely to be consumed in large part. Besides, the tragedy of the commons is that no individual forest dweller has the incentive to conserve when the private marginal cost of conservation exceeds its marginal benefits.
Forests can bear other fruits over generations. But a person who needs to find his next meal in the forest will understandably not be too worried about this. That’s why the government needs to intervene.
Social justice and the Forest Rights Act demand that displacement be through consent and the displaced are rehabilitated. While the guidelines seem to bypass the consultative mechanism for this, minister Jairam Ramesh has clarified that consent will be duly sought. But no person will agree to be removed unless incentivized to do so (or disincentivized to do otherwise), and the ministry will have to ensure that a beneficent policy in theory is not bogged down by the usual suspects in implementation.
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