New Delhi: The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has kicked off plans aimed at presenting the nation with its third forest policy—an overarching document for forest management that will seek to balance the government’s bid to ease green clearances norms with the need for development for the next 25 years.
The ministry has entrusted the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal, with the task of steering the process to revise the national forest policy (NFP), only the third such after earlier ones in 1952 and 1988. “It is going to be a mammoth task and we are expecting a basic framework by the end of March 2015.
After that we will go for a lengthy consultation process with all stakeholders like state governments, key infrastructure ministries, civil society groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, forest-dwellers and others. We will then put everything in the public domain for common people’s views for advanced consultation,” a senior MoEF official said, seeking anonymity.
The ministry is insisting on a thorough consultation process involving states, civil groups and others in order to avoid controversies and address all concerns, the official said. “The need for a new forest policy was felt due to the changing situation in the past couple of decades,” the official said.
“The revision in the national policy will help in identifying what exactly the country wants right now and outline our goals regarding forest areas.” “This new policy will basically set an agenda for the government for the next 20-25 years. Several issues like definition of forests and the issue of deemed forests, cases on which are going on in various courts, including the Supreme Court right now, will also be addressed,” the MoEF official said.
“Indian forestry is in a dynamic situation. It will be a policy-guiding document for the government,” the MoEF official added. A recent report of the high-level committee headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian had criticized the environment ministry for not defining what constitutes a forest area.
It had asked the environment ministry to not only define forests but also identify inviolate areas, regions that would be out-of-bounds for non-forestry activities like mining and industrial projects. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 general election had assured industry that he would simplify and ease green clearance norms—a pledge he has carried through in government, with the environment ministry having made several policy changes in the face of criticism.
A second government official said the new forest policy is expected to take care of the concerns raised by the Subramanian report, while addressing issues of pristine forests and the so-called violate-inviolate forest areas. The new policy will also take into account related developments in the past couple of decades, including the ambitious Green India Mission and the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
It will also take note of large-scale diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes such as mining and setting up of industries. The issue of go and no-go forest areas has pitted industry against the environment ministry amid serious objections from NGOs and tribal groups over allowing pristine forests to be cleared.
Over the years, forests have suffered serious depletion mainly due to relentless pressure from demand for fuel-wood, fodder and timber; and diversion of forest land to non-forest uses. The new policy, therefore, will aim to evolve a new strategy for forest conservation that involves preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilization, restoration, and enhancement of the natural environment.
Since 1980, a total of 1.21 million hectares (ha) of forest land have been diverted for 23,784 proposals for non-forestry purposes—primarily mining and industrial projects. Nearly 400,000 ha have been diverted in Madhya Pradesh alone, followed by over 100,000 ha each in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. “We have given ToR (terms of reference) to IIFM to make working groups and identify thematic areas on which forest policy needs modification,” said the environment ministry official cited above.
The new policy will also address the important issue of climate change—a topic that the NDA government under Modi has tried to bring into the mainstream. Currently, 22% of India is under forest cover. India’s target is to increase this to around 33%, which many, including former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, have described as unrealistic, given the pressures on resources from India’s increasing population.