Balancing The Extremes: People, Forests & Wildlife
August 2011: Forest land makes up more than 20 per cent of India's land mass, therefore it should be one of the vital priority areas for both governments and people in order to keep the forests safe and secure for the future. The Forests Rights Act completely polarised all the key players that engage with forest India, be it for the benefit of people or wildlife.
Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh tried his best to bring the opposing forces together around a table. He chaired this meeting in 2005-2006 and sat for nearly two hours as 'for-people' activists faced 'for-wildlife' activists. This group included people like Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy on one side and Dr. Ullas Karanth and myself on the other side. Senior officials of the PM's office, of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs were also present. The debate was intense. The PM was very clear in his articulation that the detailed provisions of the Forest Rights Act must harmonise to benefit both people and wildlife. When the PM had to leave for another engagement he emphasised that we should go on discussing in his absence even if it meant spending the night if necessary. What was important to him was that we reach an agreement and resolve all the issues of what could be used and what should be protected. He felt that such an agreement would determine the critical clauses in the Forest Rights Act.
Sadly a few minutes after his departure, the officials of the two Ministries got into a spat regarding the various clauses and the meeting was quickly adjourned. Looking back I'm sure that if we had continued a major agreement would have been possible. The next meeting was a couple of months later without the PM and much bigger in size. It was a damp squid, none of the issues ever got resolved. Today, five years later, even though the Forest Rights Act became legal in 2007-2008 there is little that benefits genuine tribals and forest dwellers and there are no benefits for the wildlife that inhabits these forests. The Forest Rights Act and the Wildlife Protection Act fight each other, destroying the benefits that should accrue and the reason for this is the fact that no one reached an agreement before the Forest Rights Act was rapidly passed in parliament.
How can these polarised views find a meeting point? Can genuinely concerned people get together to sort out their differences and find innovative ways to benefit locals and wildlife? The bamboo contractors, timber mafias and poachers are celebrating as all the activists clash and disagree about a future course of action in forest India. In this chaos the mining lobby is having a field day.
When Jairam Ramesh, former Minister, Environment and Forests rushed to Maharashtra to give permits to locals to harvest bamboo, the bamboo mafias celebrated across the length and breadth of India. India does not need rash decision making as it can have serious repercussions that deplete our natural treasury. If we are to redraw the lines of what areas can be used and what cannot, or the 'go' and 'no-go' areas, then only do this when there is an effective land use policy that defines the above, and a protection infrastructure that can enforce new laws on the ground. Both are absent and we are in a terrible mess and all we are doing is permitting a free-for-all to those who exploit, at an enormous cost to our natural world.
We need to get back to PM Manmohan Singh's original attempt. It is the only way forward.
A talented team of independent experts representing people and wildlife, forest officers, connected departments that survey and use land, wildlife scientists, sociologists, and others need to come together for one year and work under one roof to re-draw and reassess all forest boundaries and work out what can be inviolate and what can be used. We must never forget that inviolate forests with rich wildlife attract tourism and tourism can and should benefit communities living around the forest first. In several African nations it has generated tens of millions of dollars for local people. We need to learn from example. Besides re-drawing and reassessing the forest and our Protected Areas this team of experts must suggest new models of governance in this sector, which engage independent non-governmental people in the field. The Forest Department is no more than the custodian of our forests. They have to work hand-in-hand with people from all walks of life. And we have enough talent and expertise in India to create a new work ethic and implement innovative concepts. The end result of one-year of work by this team should culminate in a 'red paper' that is given to the government of the day. We must harness the enormous experience and ability that lives in this country and is being completely wasted. The forest officer must learn to live and work with the sociologist or wildlife scientist and conservationist - to develop this new culture we may need an entirely new forest service in order to govern effectively. This is not an issue that can be forgotten because there is a way in which both local people and wildlife can benefit. We must define the path that will take us to a new future.
It is from such discussions and the meeting of minds that necessary amendments may be required in the Forest Rights Act so that it is in harmony with the Wildlife Protection Act. It is only when this harmony is reached that the objectives of our Acts will be met. Till then no one will benefit.
By Valmik Thapar