New Delhi: India’s environment ministry has unveiled a draft of the new National Forest Policy (NFP) that proposes to restrict “schemes and projects which interfere with forests that cover steep slopes, catchments of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, geologically unstable terrain and such other ecologically sensitive areas".
“The ecologically sensitive catchment areas shall be stabilized with suitable soil and water conservation measures, and also by planting suitable trees and grass like bamboo," the draft suggests.
It also suggests setting up of two national-level bodies—National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission and National Board of Forestry (NBF)—for better management of the country’s forests.
In an explanation, it says NBF needs to be headed by the central minister in charge of forests. The draft calls for state boards of forestry headed by state ministers in charge of forests to be established for ensuring inter-sectoral convergence, simplification of procedures, conflict resolution, among other things.
National Forest Policy will be an overarching policy for forest management, with the aim of bringing a minimum of one-third of India’s total geographical area under forest or tree cover. The first National Forest Policy in independent India took effect in 1952, with a second edition in 1988.
The environment ministry has sought comments and suggestions from all stakeholders by 14 April. Once finalized, the policy will guide the forest management of the country for the next 25-30 years.
The latest draft follows one released in June 2016 which proposed a green tax for facilitating ecologically responsible behaviour, and supplementing financial resources essential to address forestry woes.
It had also called for safeguarding forest land by exercising strict restraint on “diversion for non-forestry purposes" like mining and industrial projects. Besides, it had suggested launching a national forest streams revival programme in mission mode to tackle the water crisis. The environment ministry backtracked on the earlier draft, calling it a “study", when it came under attack for allegedly weakening forest regulations.
The latest draft of National Forest Policy has omitted any reference to a green tax or a national stream revival programme. But it continues to speak about private participation in forest management, which was criticized in 2016, while noting that productivity of forest plantations are poor in most states.
“Public-private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with forest development corporations and outside forests," the draft policy stated.
The new draft also says efforts will be made to achieve harmonization between policies and laws like Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 . This can certainly once again put environmentalists and bureaucracy at loggerheads as the former may see it as an attempt to weaken role of gram sabhas (village councils).
“Forests influence, and in-turn are influenced by activities and functions of different sectors such as tribal affairs, mining, water, roads, tourism, agriculture, rural development, industry, irrigation and transmission lines etc. As far as community forest resources management under Forest Rights Act is concerned, the new policy will address the same under participatory forest management and the same will be addressed through the proposed community forest management mission," the draft said.
It further noted that India has a rich and varied experience in participatory forest management and thus there is need to further strengthen this participatory approach, for which a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission will be launched.
“This mission will have a legal basis and an enabling operational framework. The national, state and local level development programmes shall be converged... All efforts to ensure synergy between gram sabha & JFMC (Joint Forest Management Committee) will be taken for ensuring successful community participation in forest management," it added.
It stressed that “appropriate laws, rules and regulations, as per requirement, will be put in place and existing ones suitably amended for effective implementation of this policy."
On the issue of finances required for management of forests, the draft stated that the compensatory afforestation fund which is being transferred to the states would be a major source of funds for taking up afforestation and rehabilitation works in degraded forest areas as well as for bringing new areas under forest and tree cover.
“Efforts for tapping funds from other national sectors like rural development, tribal affairs, national highways, railways, coal, mines, power, etc., will be taken for appropriate implementation of linking greening with infrastructure and other development activities," it added.
The 1952 policy stressed on the production and revenue generation aspects of the forests while the 1988 version aimed at ensuring environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance.
The draft National Forest Policy says the objective of the latest version is to safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people, of present and future generations, based on sustainable management of the forests for the flow of ecosystem services. It continues with the target of having 33% of India’s geographical area under forest and tree cover and in the hills and mountainous regions, the aim will be to maintain two-thirds of the area under forest and tree cover.
At present, India’s forest and tree cover is estimated to be 802,088 sq. km, which is about 24.39% of the country’s total geographical area.
The 2018 draft also calls for “promotion of trees outside forests and urban greens", while stating that it will be taken up in “mission mode".
It addressed the issue of forest fires, stating that “adequate measures would be taken to safeguard ecosystems from forest fires, map the vulnerable areas and develop and strengthen early warning systems and methods to control fire, based on remote sensing technology and community participation."
It emphasized on integrating climate change concerns into forest management while noting that forests acts as a natural sink of carbon dioxide thereby assisting in climate change mitigation.
“Climate change concerns will be factored in all the forest and wildlife areas working/management plans and Community Ecosystem Management Plans," the draft said.
The policy also stressed that “wildlife rich areas and corridors outside protected areas would be identified and maintained for ensuring ecological and genetic continuity."
To tackle rising human-wildlife conflict, the draft outlined short-term and long-term actions.
“Quick response, dedicated teams of well equipped and trained personnel, mobility, strong interface with health and veterinary services, rescue centres, objective and speedy assessment of damage and quick payment of relief to the victims would be at the core of the short-term action. Monitoring and management of population of wildlife would be adopted on a long-term basis within and outside forests for maintaining the balance," the draft added.