A forest of controls

  • 14/12/1994

A forest of controls "HISTORY repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce." In 1982, protests by tribal groups and urban environmentalists led to the withdrawal of a draft Forest Bill. This time, the label has been changed. Previously, industrial demands were given primacy; the new draft puts ecology on the agenda. Where the continuities lie becomes evident in this excellent little book, a compilation of articles by scholars and activists.

Policymakers have now nailed "conservation" to their mast. Guha shows that the underlying premise is that bureaucratic control over the 42 million hectares of Reserved Forests is to be strengthened further, rendering them out of bounds to Joint Forest Management. This enhancement of powers works at 2 levels, with officials gaining powers over rural land users and the Centre over the states. All schemes for joint management will be confined to the more degraded and less extensive Protected Forests. The "ecology" label can help win over the most trenchant of critics.

Sharad Kulkarni, one of the editors actually takes the Forest Policy of 1988 and the objectives of the Bill at face value. But this is to miss the most important point: as Guha argues, the actual impact of the new law will be to limit and sharply restrict participatory management.

The concomitant of this enhancement of state powers is the drive to privatise more forest lands under various guises. N C Saxena contends that industry's claims for preferential treatment are specious. Focusing on the record of farmers in growing trees for industry, he shows how they are best outfitted for the task. The conclusion is an inescapable one: if industry is to be supplied with timber, cultivators can do the job. Unlike in the case of wheat, sugar and cotton, however, tree-growers are not given any infrastructural or logistical support by the government. Instead, handing over 2 million hectares of degraded forest lands to industry is being touted as the answer.

As this book makes clear, neither state control nor privatisation is a solution. Today, the success of community-level management of forests has shown another road. The forest protection committees in West Bengal are only the best known of such ventures. By nipping the extension of such mechanisms to more lands, the new law will see the forest department gain more powers than it possessed even in the colonial period.

The debate draws attention to the tenacious and highly organised lobby for more state control and for the continued marginalisation of forest-dependent communities. The past 2 decades may have changed official rhetoric but the thrust of policy remains the same. Even so, tribals and other marginal groups who are affected by such policies are now more politically assertive than ever before.

The question really facing the environmental movement is how to actualise this vision and exert pressure on the political masters. The electoral and social costs of such measures have to be driven home to the latter. The fight to push back the Forest Bill and to replace it with a fresh set of policies that empower village communities, in particular the poor, holds promise for the future. The farce can still be converted into an opportunity to build anew. This book is a step towards meeting that challenge.

Mahesh Rangarajan is a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

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