The Supreme Court recently banned tourism in the core zones of tiger reserves of the country. At the same time, the Union ministry of tribal affairs is close to tweaking the rules under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006—also known as the Forest Rights Act. Both illustrate the contradictory nature of forest and wildlife conservation attempts in India. Both may end up harming conservation.
Decision-making on environmental issues in India is quite fragmented. While the ministry of environment and forests implements various central laws—including the Forest Conservation Act 1980—the state governments, too, have powers in this domain. There are other ministries and decision-making authorities that are involved as well. If that is not all, the Supreme Court and other tribunals, too, are active participants in the ongoing story of India’s forests. The tale is rounded off with other stakeholders—tour operators, villages located in forest areas and various, illegal, interest groups such as timber smugglers and poachers who too manage some influence through the political system.
All this makes for serious collective action problems. As a result, formulating coherent policies for forest and wildlife conservation and implementing them effectively are well nigh impossible. It is in this light that these two developments—the apex court’s order and the drive to amend the rules under the forest rights act—should be seen. Both will exert contradictory pulls and pressures on India’s forests.
The court’s order is motivated by its desire to save the country’s threatened tiger population, a point worth appreciating. But in reality, it may lead to a situation where the exclusion and absence of individuals in core areas may give poachers a field day to kill this threatened animal. It is too much to expect the forest bureaucracy to ensure the safety of the tiger.
Similarly, the changes in the rules under the Forest Rights Act are meant to activate this far-reaching law. Again, the motivation is to give India’s traditional forest dwelling communities a stake in conserving and protecting forests. But far from conserving the forests, these poorest of the poor are likely to become an instrument for their destruction. At their levels of poverty, it is downright unfair to expect them not to consume forest produce in an unsustainable manner. Given the scale of corruption and criminalization in forest administration at the local level, this “opening” is the last thing that India’s forests need.
In this rather dismal scenario, it is tempting to wish for a unified or centralized decision-making authority where different stakeholders can be gathered and the right conservation decisions taken. In a country as diverse as India, this is impossible. And in this fractured policymaking landscape, the future of our forests and wildlife is cloudy.
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