Editorial: Fading green
The Centre has read the message wrong, once again. Environmental activists have been urging the government to ‘go green’ by protecting India’s forests. But it seems more interested in protecting the ‘green’ in the wallet instead. Consider a recent instance. The Union environment ministry has proposed an amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. This seeks to exempt certain categories of infrastructure project developers from requiring the Centre’s permission to use forest land for ‘non-forestry’ purposes. Although advertised as a green move, the proposal is riddled with contradictions. While the ministry claims that the intervention would incentivize afforestation on private lands, it concedes that it seeks to clear the path for land-holding agencies — the railways and the road and highway ministry included — to deforest lands acquired before 1980 as well as allow constructions for ‘bona fide’ purposes. What the government seems to ignore, however, is why the definition of ‘forest’ had been broadened in the first place. Has this been done to facilitate profiteering at the cost of India’s green cover? This is not idle speculation. India’s forests have been suffering for long: ‘very dense forests’, capable of absorbing copious amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, constitute only three per cent of the country’s geography. If the aim is indeed for India to meet its environmental goal of increasing forest and tree cover to 33 per cent, paying lip-service to the protection of ‘pristine’ forests — yet another objective of the amendment — would not be enough. The amendment would also allow non-invasive exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas. Given that illegal depredations threaten the forests in spite of protective laws in place, it is not difficult to imagine their fate without strict oversight.
India’s forests, with all their local variation and ecosystems, cannot be managed using singular, Central legislation — involving local bodies in case-specific inspection would be more effective. In fact, decentralized forest management is not without precedence: the National Forest Policy, 1988 had encouraged local participation through the joint forest management institution, while the Forest Rights Act, 2006 empowered gram sabhas with rights to manage, conserve and protect forests. Moreover, development of forest land must take into account local communities whose livelihoods depend on it — community participation in India’s first jungle safari in Chandrapur in Maharashtra is an inspiring example. The community must be made the principal stakeholder in deliberations on forest land if India is to save what remains of its wilderness.