New Delhi: Imagine two scenarios. One is a natural forest, nature’s complex multi-layered ecosystem and a landscaped home to 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity where thousands of species of plants, animals and microorganisms interact and thrive. The second forest is a human creation, a single-layered monotonous plantation of commercially viable plants and trees. Ecologists often call it the silent forest for the lack of biodiversity.

Although both types have a role to play in human society, the ecological importance of a natural forest far outweighs a plantation. It’s common knowledge that our survival on earth is linked inextricably to the health of natural forests and its ecosystem services.

Ironically, India doesn’t have a legal definition of the term “forest". Neither does the nation’s forest policy categorically differentiate the broad two forest scenarios described above. Forestry in India is classified into four categories—Protection Forests, National Forests, Village Forests and Tree Lands.

Whereas, the Forest Survey of India defines forest types—natural forest into 16 different types, plus an additional category known as “Plantation/ Trees Outside Forest (TOF)".

The current National Forest Policy dates back to 1988 before India’s economic liberalization started. And now the government wants a revision, as it perceives a decline in corporate investments into the forest sector. This time, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change is rooting for a forest-based industry sector to achieve the national goal of minimum one-third of the total land area under forest and tree cover, as outlined in the post-independence forest policy of 1952.

However, the government’s new draft national forest policy has angered the nature conservation community. Sections of the draft have left many experts befuddled. For example, how does one “enrich" natural ecosystems teeming with wildlife? Why create forest cover on semi-arid and desert ecosystems? Or “enhance nature’s ecosystem services through new technological advancements?" Or contradicting statements like “However the low quality and low productivity of our natural forests…issues of serious concern," vis-a-vis “Natural forests are rich repositories of biodiversity in the country. India has a rich diversity of wild flora and fauna housed in varied ecosystems."

“The draft policy is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions that have the potential to balance the competing needs of conservation and development. Furthermore, failed ideas like compensatory afforestation, catchment area treatment and joint forest management have been included in spite of massive evidence on failures documented by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), parliamentary committees and other independent assessments," says Praveen Bhargav, a former Member, National Board for Wildlife and Managing Trustee Wildlife First, an NGO involved in conservation of forests and wildlife.

Bhargav has suggested properly recasting the draft policy in larger national interest.

Most ecologists say the new draft is a watered-down version of the current policy, and poor in content. Some say it is a hurriedly drafted document that undermines the role of community in forest conservation, while others point to how the new draft guidelines completely ignore widespread forest diversions. Even peer-reviewed scientific research shows how large blocks of forests are getting fragmented into smaller patches due to the ill-planned intrusion of developmental projects. Forest fragmentation has devastating impacts and one of the most serious threats to long-term conservation, but the new draft policy proclaims: “There has been an increase in forest and tree cover and reduction in the diversion of forest land… despite…increasing population, industrialization and rapid economic growth."

In 2013, an RTI application by environmental lawyers Ritwik Dutta and Rahul Choudhary revealed that the country, on an average, loses 135 hectares of natural forest land per day to development schemes.

Dutta and Choudhary say that in 2017 alone, the government has passed about 10,000 approvals related to forest diversions. Even the finest tiger habitats are not being spared. As of today, 200 sq. km from Panna (Madhya Pradesh), over 83 sq. km in Amrabad (Telangana), 1,000 ha from Palamau (Jharkhand), 39 ha from Pench (MP) and a 50km stretch in Corbett (Uttarakhand), are up for clearance either for dams, mining or road building.

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