The revenue from forests is diminished, but not the desire for plunder
What exactly is a ‘forest’? The question appears elementary, and should not test the brightest of minds. Yet, Indian bureaucracy, the minder of the nation’s depleting natural wealth, has often found itself grappling with this enquiry. For instance, it has been reported that the ministry of environment, forest and climate change has, apparently, been mulling over the definition of a forest since 2014. But the outcome of these deep reflections has not always become public, leaving citizens, environmentalists and, most important, communities dependent on forests in the lurch. It now appears that Uttarakhand, which is heavily forested, has found a way to unlock the puzzle. The state government, it has been reported, has prepared itself to notify rules, imposing ‘tighter’ conditions when it comes to classifying land as forest. The state cabinet has given its nod to stipulations that suggest that a piece of land cannot be defined as a forest if it is not spread across a minimum of 10 hectares with a minimum canopy density of 60 per cent, among other requirements. The stringency of the parameters is astonishing. The Union ministry of environment comprehends forests to be those parcels of land covering more than 1 ha with a tree density of over 10 per cent. What is alarming in particular is that with this change in definition, vast swathes of green territory in that state would no longer remain under the protection of the Forest Conservation Act.
The motive for this move appears to be innocent. In 1996, the Supreme Court had directed states to constitute committees of experts to help identify forested lands. On paper, the Uttarakhand government seems to be only complying to an order from the apex court. But conservationists have denounced this rationale as a fig leaf to cover an act of unmitigated destruction. They fear that the new rules — they have received the blessings of the environment ministry — would prise open the remaining forest cover for loot. At the heart of the mischief lies a faulty vision concerning natural wealth. Instead of viewing such resources as organic to the development agenda, the Indian State, much like the colonial administration, continues to perceive forests as a source of revenue. Unfortunately, the revenue is now diminished; but not the desire for plunder.