Missing the wood and trees

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Tribal people in Tamil Nadu during a rally in Salem in August 2008. They, along with activists, came out with the "Salem Declaration" on the "International Day for Indigenous People", which urged the Tamil Nadu government to ensure tribal rights. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

An agitation by tribal people from the habitations that would be affected by the proposed mining of bauxite in Jerrila Reserve Forest Area in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh in November 2015. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The book takes an in-depth look at forest management and governance in the country and the efforts to make it more people-centric.

THIS year marks the decadal milestones for two events in the recent history of forest governance in India. One was an act of the courts and the other an Act of Parliament. The first had its origin in 1996 and the other in 2006.

In 1996, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice J.S. Verma and Justice B.N. Kirpal issued an order on a writ petition filed by T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad against the Union of India. The case perhaps took a shape and life entirely different from what Thirumulpad had intended to achieve through his petition filed in 1995.

Thirumulpad, a senior member of the erstwhile zamindar family of Nilambur in Kerala, had complained to the apex court that trees were being felled in violation of rules from Gudalur forests after the state took them over from his family. His petition was only a starting point: the Supreme Court took upon itself the responsibility of reviewing forest governance and management practices across the country. The case was kept open under a continuing mandamus and was heard by the Supreme Court until it was transferred to the National Green Tribunal in 2010.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, known as the FRA, was one of the rights-based laws passed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government during its first term in office. FRA’s stated purpose was to “recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”. It also aims to provide a framework for recording these rights.

The book under review takes an in-depth look at the system of forest management and governance in the country and the efforts in recent decades to make it more people-centric. The editors Sharachchandra Lele and Ajit Menon use the FRA and the Thirumulpad case as entry points into the narrative. Together with the contributors, they take a comprehensive look at how the system of forest governance evolved from the colonial period, through the Chipko movement of the 1970s, the joint forest management (JFM) schemes of the 1980s and 1990s, and the FRA.

According to them, the key issues explored in the book “relate to the shift from so-called participatory management to rights-based bottom-up governance, the challenge of integrating conservation concerns into bottom-up governance and the even more complex question of balancing between forests and non-forests”.

The book also looks at the role of the judiciary and the larger discussions on agrarian structures, social inequities and shifting dependencies.

The chapters are written by “activist scholars and scholarly activists”, who, according to the editors, “believe that there is a strong need to democratise the process of forest (and overall environmental) governance in India”.

This involves “deepening the democratic process in multiple ways: spatial decentralisation, devolution of actual power to lower tiers, and the functioning of all tiers and all arms (political, executive and judicial) in ways that are democratic, transparent and accountable”, Lele and Menon say.

“India’s forest lands are an arena of intense conflicts today,” writes Madhu Sarin, who works in the area of sustainable forest management. “These conflicts are rooted in the historical-political process by which huge swathes of ecologically diverse lands, inhabited by culturally diverse communities managing them for multiple uses and values, have been legally (mis)classified or recorded as ‘forests’ and brought under uni-functional and centralised forest management.”

According to her, governments in India continued with the British policy of reserving forest resources for commercial use. This was compounded by the policy of exclusionary conservation, initiated after the Wildlife Protection Act was legislated in 1972, that turned forest tracts declared as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries into no-go areas for communities. The JFM schemes launched in the 1990s reached an impasse since they skirted around issues related to tenure and livelihood functions of the forests.

“Finally, the multiple orders issued by the Supreme Court under the Godavarman public interest litigation case have further narrowed the ecological focus to protecting trees and forest land (rather than forest ecosystems) through centralised administrative control. The cumulative impact of these processes on the citizenship and survival rights of many marginalised Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities have been devastating.”

Game changer

The FRA emerged as a legislation to correct this and return rights to forest-based communities. Madhu Sarin calls it a game changer. “The FRA represents a milestone in Indian legislative history, with Parliament acknowledging the historical injustice done to India’s tribal and other traditional forest-dwelling communities during the consolidation of state forests. By declaring that rights recognised under the Act include ‘responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime … while ensuring livelihood and food security,’ the FRA questions the very basis of current state-controlled, exclusionary forest management. In doing so, it also lays the foundation for democratisation of forest governance.”

Madhu Sarin states that three major provisions of the FRA help it strengthen democratic governance in forests. The Act facilitates claiming of rights in all forest lands, including protected areas; elaborates the authorities and procedures for receiving and verifying claims; and empowers the right holders and/or gram sabhas (village councils) to conserve forests, wildlife, and biodiversity and their natural and cultural heritage.

While Madhu Sarin looks at the strengths of the FRA, two authors look at the weaknesses of two processes that happened before 2006.

Lele deals with the limitations of the JFM process of the 1990s and Shomona Khanna with the limitations of the court orders related to the Thirumulpad case.

Sagari Ramdas adds an interesting dimension to the forest governance discussion. She writes about the inclusion of the concerns of the pastoralists into the FRA and reviews how forest-grazing methods that were well developed in traditional systems fell into disarray in the post-Independence decades.

Citing the example of Andhra Pradesh, she writes that wrongly implemented land reforms resulted in grazing lands being transferred to the landless and thereby losing their traditional function.

The reallocation of agricultural lands for industrial purposes and the diversion of land to non-food cash crops also added to pastoralists losing their access to lands.

In discussions relating to forests in India, there are broadly two schools: one giving preference to conservation and the other according importance to the rights of the communities living inside the forests. The twain usually does not meet. The contributors to this book obviously fall into the second category.

The authors also reaffirm the popular viewpoint in forest-related scholarship that the traditional systems were hunky-dory until the British came and messed it up, and Indian governance made it even worse. To understand whether this is true or not would require a more nuanced understanding of the forest systems in innumerable princely states before the British came. We must at least give credit to the British for starting a systematic forestry process and leaving enough records so that the processes can be analysed threadbare.

The process of building democratic governance in forest areas is a work in progress. Even though the contributors to the book are critical of JFM and the court order in the Thirumulpad case, these were stepping stones for the FRA.

The JFM process for the first time introduced the concept of involving communities dwelling on the edges of forests in management, with forest managers supporting them in developing biomass for their needs so that the pressure on the core forest is reduced.

As a young reporter in the 1990s, this writer saw JFM schemes being successfully implemented on the edges of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in Tamil Nadu.

Similarly, the Thirumulpad case gave a definitive direction to efforts at conserving forests. Management of forests was then slipping into a laissez-faire situation with the Environment Ministry under the leadership of Kamal Nath thinking aloud about handing over forests with less than 40 per cent canopy cover to industry for developing plantations.

Judicial activism

The first of the Thirumulpad orders came at a time when the judiciary was getting active with environmental judgments. In December 1996, Justice Kuldip Singh retired. What should have been a rather uneventful transition turned into a period of great judicial activism, with Justice Kuldip Singh pronouncing judgments in many environmental cases pending with him, among them the leather tannery pollution case, the shrimp aquaculture case and those relating to violations of coastal regulation zone rules.

With the first Thirumulpad order coinciding with this deluge of judgments, it also was seen as a case of activism by the courts. Even though the courts did get into the jurisdiction of executive decision-making, they brought some checks and balances into forest management through their multiple orders.

Forest governance, of course, is a bigger term and it means accepting that the forests are as much the property of the communities living in them as the state’s. And this is where those from the conservation and tribal rights schools are at loggerheads. While the conservationists want more forests to be declared no-go areas, the rights group want more access and decision-making control for the forest-dwelling communities.

Lele and Menon close the volume with an epilogue in which they look at the macro-level changes in forestry in India since the time they started working on the book. With the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance assuming office at the Centre, government support for the FRA has decreased.

In fact, the new government has little respect for either conservation or the rights of the forest dwellers and wants environmental and forest clearances for projects to be accorded quickly.

Faced with this enhanced pressure, the supporters of conservation and tribal rights are coming together to fight for a bigger cause. Without forests, there can be neither tigers nor tribal people.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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