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Model for how not to manage forests

Calcutta, Aug. 30: West Bengal has done it again. The birthplace of joint forest management (JFM) and the winner of several national and international awards in this regard, the state is steadily setting an example of how not to manage forests.

“Today, states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and even just-born Chhattisgarh are ahead of West Bengal in JFM. Ironically, the revolutionary method of participatory forest management was initiated in Arabari, West Bengal, and then formalised throughout the country in the early 1990s,” V. K. Bahuguna, inspector-general of forests, Union ministry of environment and forests, told The Telegraph.

In the city for the third national seminar on JFM, the Government of India representative added: “The movement in Bengal has not grown the way it should have. The quality leaves a lot to be desired. Like some other states, Bengal finds itself in a Catch-22 situation with foresters associated with JFM either not knowing how to go about things or believing they know it all, when they actually know very little. There are knowledgeable foresters who are, however, not given any responsibility.”

Stressing the importance of substantially increasing women and tribal representatives in forest-protection committees, Bahuguna also urged foresters “not to resist change”.

This ‘resistance’ was all too evident at the two-day meet. Experts from states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh emphasised the importance of increasing popular participation and giving more forest shares to the people, but some senior foresters from Bengal protested the “obsession with the word participation”.

Ajit Banerjee, proponent of the pioneering Arabari model, gave pro-changers a boost with his demand for “more devolution of power in favour of the people” and a proposal that the forest department should now shed its predominant role in the JFM and, instead, play the part of facilitator.

The other problem area for the JFM in Bengal appears to be the “politics” of the programme. State forest minister Jogesh Burman has harped on the importance of linking the panchayats with the forest protection committees. Foresters and other experts have, however, expressed apprehension over the politicisation of the programme.

“There is no harm in having a working relationship between panchayats and the forest protection committees, but our experience in many places, including Bengal, suggest that the politicisation of the programme leads to centralisation of power and breeds corruption,” observed a senior forester.

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