One of the eight Missions under India's National Action Plan on Climate Change, the revised National Mission for a Green India (GIM for short) professes responding to climate change by a combination of adaptation and mitigation measures, which would help:
- enhancing carbon sinks in sustainably managed forests and other ecosystems;
- adaptation of vulnerable species/ecosystems to the changing climate; and
- adaptation of forest-dependent communities
These laudable objectives are to be achieved by arbitrarily determined targets of increasing forest/tree cover in 5 m ha of land and improving the quality of forest cover in another 5 million ha during the next 10 years at an astounding cost of Rs.46,000 crores. About 1.5 m ha of ‘moderately dense forest’, 3 m ha of ‘open forests’ and another 0.4 m ha of grasslands will be covered under Sub Mission 1 for ‘enhancing quality of forest cover and improving ecosystem services’. Sub Mission 2 will treat 0.8 mha of ‘scrub lands’ & 0.6 mha of shifting cultivation lands and another 3 mha of non-forest lands under agro-forestry and social forestry ‘for ecosystem restoration and increasing forest cover’.
The question to which one doesn’t find any answer is who does this land belong to, what are its existing livelihood and ecological functions, what biodiversity does it currently harbour and which livelihoods will get destroyed/displaced by the mission’s interventions? The Forest Survey of India (FSI) designates land into various categories of forest cover based on satellite imagery. As the 2009 State of Forest report states “the forest cover mapping …. does not make any distinction between type and origin of trees i.e. natural or man-made. Also, it does not recognize the type of land ownership or land use and legal status of land. Thus, all species of trees (including bamboos, fruits, coconut, palms, etc.) and all types of lands (forest, private, community or institutional) are included as forest cover provided they satisfy the criteria of minimum density and area.” India’s forest cover data, thus, tells us little about the quality of our forests (as it includes all private commercial horticultural and other plantations), or about the actual uses, ownership and livelihood functions of the land to which it pertains. ‘Moderately dense’, ‘open forests’ etc are not necessarily forests at all but land with multiple other uses and owners.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, was enacted to address the historical injustice and acute conflicts arising out of classification of customary tribal & other forest dwellers lands as ‘forests’ without recognizing their pre-existing rights. While forest departments continue subverting the recognition of community rights on forest land, the Mission aims to bring massive areas of other non-forest lands, primarily the already depleted commons critical for the livelihoods of millions of the marginalized, under forest cover. Grazing restrictions and tree plantations on pasture lands displace nomadic pastoralists and settled livestock rearers from their livelihood resource base which will further exacerbate conflicts on the ground, something which is already happening under the forest departments’ ongoing plantation programmes through JFM committees. (A woman activist from Chhatisgarh had said at a workshop that JFM Committees have become like demons who kick people off their lands to forcibly plant Jatropha).
The Mission’s most blatant attempt at converting community owned lands under multi-functional uses and tenures is the target of increasing forest cover through ‘Rehabilitating 0.6 mha of Shifting Cultivation areas’ (Sub Mission 2 a)). Most of the area under shifting cultivation is managed by constitutionally protected traditional institutions in the north eastern states harbouring rich indigenous ecosystem knowledge and agro-biodiversity. Intrinsically linked with social organization, shifting cultivation embodies one of the most equitable and socially inclusive land use system as land for cultivation is allocated on the basis of need with priority given to the neediest. Regenerating fallows under shifting cultivation are not fixed uni-functional ‘forests’ of the foresters’ world view and even the FAO does not include them in its forest cover assessment, categorizing them as ‘forest fallows’ instead. Continuing to record regenerating forest fallows as ‘forest cover’ or ‘abandoned jhum’ by the FSI is a misleading portrayal of a complex land use system leading to inappropriate targeting of jhum lands for increasing forest cover. Already resentful of forest departments’ efforts to take over their community lands as state forests North Eastern communities are unlikely to find the mission’s proposal acceptable, exacerbating existing suspicions and conflicts.
Decentralized Forest Governance or pre-empting the Gram Sabhas’ statutory forest management powers?
GIM claims that the Forest Department's role would be to provide demand-based support to the Gram Sabha and its mandated committees to strengthen decentralized forest governance leading to sustainable management of the forests (pg 27)
While paying lip service to constitutionally mandated decentralized governance by Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and the empowerment of Gram Sabhas to protect, regenerate and manage their Community Forest Resources by the FRA, the document’s primary thrust is on transferring the Gram Sabha’s forest management powers to ‘revamped’ Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) (although CFM groups, Van Panchayats, Committees set up under Forest Rights Act, Biodiversity Management Committees etc. are also mentioned) as committees constituted by the Gram Sabha. When the Forest Rights Act statutorily empowers Gram Sabhas to elect their own committees for managing their community forest resources, thrusting FD controlled JFM committees on them is a blatant attempt to pre-empt the Gram Sabha’s powers and autonomy even before their forest rights have been recognised. The prerogative to decide whether they want to participate in JFM on the forest department’s conditions (which is what JFM really is) or not lies with the Gram Sabhas but the Environment Minister has already written to state Chief Ministers to make JFM committees Standing Committees of Panchayats and amend their Panchayat Acts accordingly. Little is said about how JFM committees would be revamped other than strengthening them by providing them the power of a forest officer under the Indian Forest Act. While undermining the Gram Sabha’s statutory authority, this will be a blatant violation of the FRA as well as PESA in Schedule V areas.
Despite the rhetoric about indigenous knowledge, community driven innovative/adaptive silviculture and enhancing biodiversity, the Mission’s lack of trust in community capabilities to manage their own community resources is further evident from the provision that “Silvicultural management (plans) of the area assigned to JFMC” can be approved by Gram Sabhas only “after the technical approval by the Forest Department”(Point 3, page 27). Not only this, “similar provisions with necessary modifications could be made applicable to other committees of the Gram Sabha as well as to Village Councils (in North Eastern states) entrusted with the responsibility of managing forests and natural resources. Instead of learning from and nurturing customary community systems of conserving biodiversity and protecting forests, the Mission thus intends to extend the forest departments’ technical supremacy and control even over communal/community lands under diverse uses and tenures.
A genuine commitment to empowering gram sabhas to manage their community forest resources implies a thinner and radically restructured forest department instead of the proposed strengthening of its front line staff of forest guards to range officers. This is to be supplemented by building a new million strong cadre of Community Foresters of educated youth, who will effectively function as an extension of the forest department in the villages while weakening collective decision making. Such recruitment, where considered necessary, should remain the prerogative of Gram Sabhas who may be better off drawing on the richer biodiversity knowledge of village elders instead of formally educated youth.
The only proposed institutional reform related to the FD itself is to revamp the Forest Development Agencies, currently headed and controlled by forest officials at every level, with an elected chairman but with a forest official continuing as the Chief Executive Officer (page 28).
Although one line in the entire document does state that “the areas where the Mission activities are proposed need to ensure that the FRA compliance has been made” (pg 41), there is no evident commitment to ensuring the recognition of community forest resource rights as that would make most of the mission’s proposed activities redundant.
Commodification of forests through REDD Plus & carbon markets?
The Mission proposes to set up a REDD Plus Cell under the Ministry of Environment and Forests for providing services for improved monitoring at the outcome level to avail benefits under REDD Plus, CDM and other carbon market mechanisms.(pg 32)
As a majority of interventions under the Mission are seen as having the potential to qualify under REDD / REDD Plus, it is proposed to improve the capacity of multiple stakeholders, particularly forest-dependent communities, to implement REDD Plus at decentralized levels. Without clarifying who will own the carbon, who will have the right to decide whether to participate in carbon markets or not, and with barely any mention of community forest rights, the GIM seems designed for garnering REDD Plus funds for undertaking plantations on community lands in the name of increasing forest cover.
The professed aim of enhancing biodiversity, restoring ecosystems and habitat diversity instead of undertaking only plantations to meet carbon sequestration targets rings hollow as forest departments simply do not have the capacity for ecosystem restoration. Similar statements were made for the use of CAMPA funds. But forest departments are not only continuing to forcibly undertake plantations in the habitats of Primitive Tribal Groups in violation of the FRA, getting JFM groups to evict cultivators before their rights are recognised, and in Orissa’s case, burning diverse existing vegetation and the habitat of wildlife to clear the land for CAMPA funded plantations.
According to MoEF’s own data, till 1999, 31.21 million hectares of forest plantations had already been undertaken. If all the plantations had survived why would Rs 46,000 crores be required for another 10 mha today?
In the year when Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work on local collective action, the Ministry needs to learn from and build upon the experience of community institutions managing their forests and other resources sustainably. Studies across the world indicate that forest protection and ecosystem management are best done by communities where local rights and tenure are secure and collective decision making and rule making autonomy is in the hands of communities. Such institutions need to be nurtured and cannot be created for meeting externally imposed bio-physical targets on people’s lands under other livelihood uses. Neither does nurturing such institutions require thousands of crores of Rupees. Van Panchayat forests in Uttarakhand are as good if not better than reserve forests under the forest department’s control at one tenth of the cost incurred by the forest department. Yet instead of supporting them, the FD has thrust its own personnel inside them, effectively converting them into JFM committees without any justification.
In its present form, instead of helping mitigation/adaptation to climate change, the GIM will only help another scam ridden bureaucracy grab control over remaining community lands, destroy existing livelihoods, increase conflict while further delegitimizing indigenous knowledge and more resilient local systems of resource use and governance while actually destroying biodiversity and ecosystems.
An effective GIM needs to be centered on a bottom up institutional approach which ensures:
- recognition and respect for community forest rights;
- genuine devolution of planning and management authority to Gram Sabhas/traditional institutions
- building upon existing livelihood functions and uses
- nurturing democratic and equitable governance