A lot of noise has been made for quite some time in various quarters on ecological imbala¬nces in general and on forest denudation in particular. But it is only lately that some attention is at last being devot¬ed to the practical questions of the inter-relationship bet¬ween forests and the people. Do people exist for the good of the forests, or the forests for the good of the people? Or is there an intrinsically and mutually beneficial relationship between the two? In any case, who are the ‘people’? And since ‘people’ would be made up of various human com¬munities with different kinds of interests, which of these interests would be ‘national’ and which ‘sectional’?
These are questions which must be squarely faced if the all-important matter of the restoration of the ecological balance is to be tackled success¬fully. The draft Indian Forest Bill of 1980 was opposed by some well-meaning circles, one of them being the Indian Social Institute which felt sufficiently provoked to hold a Workshop last year on what our new forest policy should be. Some selected intellectuals and activists took part in this Workshop, and the two book¬lets under review are made up of the participants’ well-informed presentations and deliberations. The burden of their chorus is that people—the poor people, the vast majority of the rural populace, the forest dwellers—have an inherent as well as a historical right over the forests, a right that was taken away arbitrari¬ly and unfairly by the British colonial Raj in the nineteenth century.
Gopa Joshi has brought out well the point of a colonially-sponsored contradiction be¬tween forests and forest dwel-lers, so much so that everywhere (except Arunachal) there are un-negotiable restric¬tions on the forest dwellers, though hardly any on com¬mercial interests till recent times. Indeed, as Walter Fernandes makes out in his Intro-duction, in what is now Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the sub¬sidy (hard to believe!) on forest produce (given during the colonial Raj days from the 1920’s) to the forces of ‘free’ enterprise was so much that it in turn inevitably led to reck¬less deforestation. The bamboo needs of the paper mills there have now to be met from faraway Arunachal—and all this while the daily earnings of basket weavers have been declining.
Further, according to Gopa Joshi, the concept of ‘national interest’ has in the past been applied forcefully but unfairly in the sectional interest of the commercial sector. In support of her contention, she quotes the ‘Report of the Govern¬ment’s Study Team on Tribal Development Programmes’ thus:
The impression gathered by the Team in the course of •its tours in the various States is that the Forest Depart¬ments with their essentially departmental outlook are making the life of the tribal unnecessarily difficult. The Team does not foresee any change in their attitudes unless the State Govern¬ments make the welfare of the tribals living in the forests as one of the aims of the Forest Departments. It is not impossible to recon¬cile the interests of scientific forestry with the interests of the tribals who if handled with sympathy can be an asset to the Departments.
If, therefore, the British colonial policy had incorrectly and un¬necessarily sought to protect forest wealth from forest dwel¬lers but not, surprisingly, from the rapacious commercial ele¬ments, and if this is what has upset the ecosystem—since commercial and not ecological considerations continued to direct forest operations—Gopa Joshi’s panacea is a people-oriented forest policy and development strategy which will be able to bring the forest-dwellers in the mainstream of national life without adversely affecting the eco-system.
Now this does sound pure populist, idealistic mumbo-jumbo, and it is unfortunate that Gopa Joshi offers no clues whatsoever as to how her sentiments are to be put to practice. Nonetheless, it is un¬doubtedly relevant to bear in mind here the equally un¬doubted fact that till the British colonial Raj separated the Indian people from their forests in the name of scientific management, the deforestation process had not started.
Taking up the cue from here, Messers Vandana Shiva, H.C. Sharatchandra, and J. Bandhopadhyay refer to the joint crisis of unsatisfied basic forest needs of the poor and the man-induced instability of the ecosystem. Past forestry pro¬grammes benefited the industry to the detriment of the poor while spoiling the ecological balance. But where social forestry differs most radically from past forestry programmes is the recognition that the rebuild¬ing of India’s forest wealth cannot be undertaken with¬out the participation of the local community.
They approvingly quote Eckholm in holding that ‘com¬munity involvement is not just an ideologically appealing goal; it is a practical necessity if rural forest needs are to be met’— because ‘community forestry cannot be imposed from above and carried out in the face of a hostile popula¬tion’. And according to them, the initial experiences of social forestry has not been happy in that the needs of the rural poor have not been met, even firewood supply has not been achieved, and quick-growing species have only helped en¬rich the already rich commer¬cial elements. But they too, like Gopa Joshi, have not offered any practical solutions.
K.P. Kannan traces the evolu¬tion of forestry legislation from the British colonial Raj which dispossessed the forest dwellers in favour of the pri¬vate sector; this view was reiterated by the National Commission of Agriculture which laid the entire blame for forest destruction on villagers and forest dwellers. And the draft Forest Bill of 1980 now not only proposes to complete the colonial process of separat¬ing the people from the forests, but, quite unbeliev¬ably, would expect the people to grow trees under threats of legal consequences though they are not to derive any benefits from the trees they grow! Hence Kannan would oppose the draft bill by lobbying at the academic level, at the poli¬tical level and, not least, by activizing the rural poor con¬cerned.
Sharad Kulkarni quotes the National Commission of Agri¬culture as late as in 1976 still advocating the com-mercialization of agriculture at all costs and with disregard to the sustenance adivasis derived from the forests. In its own words, the ‘production of industrial wood would have to be the raison d’etre for the existence of forests’. As if this were not enough, the draft Forest Bill of 1980 defines ‘forest’ to include ‘any land containing trees and shrubs, pasture lands, and any land whatsoever which the State Gov¬ernment may, by notification, declare to be forest for the purpose of this Act’—that is, any land, irrespective of the state of its green cover, could be declared as forest land and thereby taken away by the Government. In prac¬tice, therefore, according to Kulkarni, the draft Forest Bill of 1980 emphasized forest protection not for the people but instead from the people. He also feels that
what we need is a social forest policy rather than the social forestry as defined by the government today. Forestry must be taken out of the forest department and even out of the forests to the people and efforts must be made to involve them in growing trees to meet their own requirements.
Now this, like the views ex¬pressed by his Workshop colleagues, sounds somewhat impractical. Who is going to make the people so involved if forestry is to be taken out of the forest departments? And contradictory too—for if forestry is to be taken out of forest too, what is going to happen to the existing forests? In a way, Kulkarni’s solution, unless spelt out in detail, sounds like classical anarc¬hism—out with the State, all power to the people, etc!
Upendra Baxi, who has else¬where made noises about the many defects of the legal system, makes a vehement case for empowering the people with legal powers under new forest laws. Indeed, he would have the draft Forest Bill of 1980 as the rallying point of all well-meaning activists, the result of whose just struggles would be such new forest laws as will be popular in form as well as in content. Unfor¬tunately for Baxi, this is just the kind of populism that is easy—indeed pleasing—to dream upon, but impossible to act upon.
In this background of well-written critiques and not-so-practicable panaceas, Madhav Gadgil —a well-meaning and disinterested scientist—lays it thick with claims which are, however, well-established. For example,
A hundred years after the launching of scientific forest management in India, we had no basic information on the growing stock of trees on land under the control of forest departments in the country…The liquidation of these (forest) resources by the powerful commercial and industrial sector is con¬sidered to be in the ‘national’ interest even while the tradi¬tional access of the rural poor to these resources has been gradually abridged over the years since the early reservation of forests in the 1860’s…(because) the main bias of forest management has been against rural arti¬sans as with other weaker, sections of society.
As for the solution, the choice is made out by Gadgil to be self-evident: land available for afforestation could be up to 88 million hectares, which ‘could either be given to industry or to the rural poor…the choice depends on social considera¬tions’. Pradip Prabhu, equally forcefully, makes the same point. And in the second book¬let under review, as cogently and cohesively, Desmond D’Abreo too argues in favour of restoring the forests to the people to help both the people and the ecosystem.
Despite their faults, there is no doubt that these two booklets provide much and good infor¬mation about our forests, both the past and the present. They have been penned from a refreshingly new viewpoint, summed up aptly in the sub¬title of the first booklet: ‘people’s rights and environ¬mental needs’. It is established clearly that you cannot have the one without the other. The idea of expanding the Simlipal Tiger Reserve—clearly a worthy aim—by ejecting a thousand tribal families from the land in question, for instance, is to ask for trouble and to give ecology a bad name. To talk the technical jargon of ecology without any reference to the people will only turn conservation into an elitist game played by the same kind of people who in the first instance messed around with trees and wildlife in a selfish and socially irresponsible manner. These papers bring out very well the fact that the rural populace and the forest dwellers themselves have al¬ways had the personal inclina¬tion as well as the traditional knowledge to conserve both forests and their wild life.
There is a strong ideological content running all through the two booklets, which is visibly and stridently pro-poor and anti-rich. But as it hap¬pens, ideology without any clue to its enforcement is like theory that is bereft of prac¬tice. And such is the chief drawback of these two book¬lets. For what the political and administrative mechanics of restoring the forests back to the people should be is a ques¬tion that remains unanswered at the end of it all.
What, then, does the future hold for us? It is generally assumed that the draft Forest Bill of 1980 has indeed been stalled. It is also generally known that the authorities have chalked out a fresh forest policy, whose draft approach paper was in fact initiated by one of the participants of this self-same Workshop. And, per¬haps as a consequence of this draft approach paper, high authorities have recently made it known that restoration of the ecosystem can and must be done in consonance with com¬munity involvement. The out¬look, then, is not at all bleak. These two booklets should have taken into consideration these new, happy straws in the wind, rather than leave as they were their 1982 findings on the 1980 draft Forest Bill—for 1983 has definitely given a por¬tent of a happy turn in ecolo-gical restoration attempt.
Alok Sinha is Deputy Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.