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Rural power for forest cover
- Villagers' empowerment must for forest project success: Activist

Ranchi, Nov. 13: Stepping up the heat on the World Bank, forest activists today warned that unless the rural people were empowered and givencharge of forests, the ambitious Jharkhand social forestry project would fail to protect the deteriorating forest cover in the state.

The latest development puts NGOs in the forest sectors on a collision course with the state forest department officials.

The latter have been advocating a collaboration of the state and the populace in the forest areas, and partial decentralisation of power in their negotiations with the World Bank, which is funding the ambitious Jharkhand social forestry project.

Though the forest department claims that at least 29 per cent of the state's total area is under forest cover, NGOs allege that with large-scale illegal felling of trees continuing unabated, forest cover is barely 14 per cent of the total area.

Negotiations are currently in the final stages with the World Bank for the funding of the Rs 1,147.77-crore Jharkhand participatory forest management project.

The project aims to alleviate rural poverty though improved forest eco-system management, community participation in protecting forests and thereby improve the livelihoods of the forest dependent communities.

These points were raised at a workshop organised by the Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan and Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action at Ranchi today.

Former Indian forest service official, Ajit Banerjee, considered a pioneer in formulating the concept of a joint forest management (JFM) in West Bengal, spoke at the occasion.

He pointed out that after years of experimentation the concept of a joint forest management in his home state, he was of the opinion that only empowerment of the forest people could deliver the goods.

Later, speaking to The Telegraph, Banerjee said the joint forest management helped restore the dignity to the people living in these forest areas and helped remove years of animosity between the forest department and the people.

However, he pointed out, as the powers remained concentrated mostly with the forest department officials, plans formulated at the micro levels failed to take into account the needs of the local people.

'Under JFM, forest committees were set up, and such panels had its own executive committee. Over the years, these executive members became all powerful and even forest officials found it more convenient to deal with a select few rather than interact with the entire community. Forest officials then found it convenient to formulate their plans and thrust their ideas on the forest dwellers,' Banerjee explained.

Accordingly, the framed forest policies failed to take care of the needs of the people for firewood, kendu and sal leaves, medicinal plants whilst timber for coal mines were accorded top priority, he recounted.

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