The draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 that was proposed by the Union Government in March this year, has once again sparked a national debate surrounding the forests, its inhabitants, and their collective conservation. Amidst its claims of “enrichment, management and, sustainable development of forest resources”, certain major recommendations made in the draft have raised serious concerns in terms of security- of the forests, its people, and consequentially the nation as a whole. One such concerning recommendation among the rest is that of the proposed introduction of a new category of forests altogether, called, the Production Forests. While significantly visible and immediate economic benefits certainly come along with this recommendation that are indeed expected to bear positive results at a national level, the opportunity costs for the same are anything but deserving of being ignored at the current scale.
What are Production Forests?
Production Forests are majorly expected to comprise commercial plantations aimed at specified production of timber, pulp, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, or any other forest species with the objective of increasing the overall national production. Under the aforementioned draft, it will be under the discretion of the forest authorities to choose where these specific production forest plantations need to be raised (including within reserved and/or protected forests). These plantations are mostly expected to comprise commercially demanded species like bamboo and teak, which in turn are expected to raise the national green cover, as well as the overall national revenue. They are further expected to reduce the forest resources’ trade deficit, ‘double’ the incomes of the farmers undertaking these plantations and generate ripple effects in various other sectors that are directly/indirectly linked with this production, leading to greater employment. (Moving the Bill to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927, in the Rajya Sabha, in his address dated December 27, 2017, the Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr Harsha Vardhan, quoted that with 20 million people already employed in the bamboo industry, it is certainly worth consideration that one tonne of bamboo production alone generates approximately 350 man-days of employment.)
While the proposing parties have been extremely positive about the introduction of Production Forests, this proposal has been drawing flak from most environmentalists, activists, and even local communities. With an obvious assurance of accelerated generation of employment in related industries, as well as a visible increase in the overall national green cover, it is indeed puzzling as to where this criticism is really originating from.
Examining the Opportunity Costs: Diversity, Displacement, Discontent
A brief study of some similar situations in a similar setup, in the western part of the world, therefore becomes necessary. Driven by similar aspirations, large scale plantations for fuelling the paper industry have emerged across acres of erstwhile forested belts in the rainforests of South America and Africa. This indeed has fulfilled all the aforementioned assurances that the draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 seeks to achieve, but has simultaneously resulted in the large scale displacement of local communities and loss of the native biodiversity for procuring land for these plantations. Similar plantation drives through the Green India Mission have met public disapproval on several occasions in the past, because they consequentially affect the livelihood of the local people. Moreover, the concept of monoculture, most environmentalists have argued, devoid of the natural biodiversity, creates more ‘green deserts’ than forests, that miserably alters the existing ecological balance.
All of this put together prove to be expensive opportunity costs when compared with the estimated gains. With increased displacements, the already existing grievances of the local population are only expected to grow. Further, with compensations, as promised, and rehabilitation infrastructure, not adequately in place, the local discontent could further get aggravated. Considering that a majority of this population lives in the areas falling under the Red Corridor, increased grievances due to the government policies could create situations challenging India’s Internal Security as a whole. All aside, what is most surprising is, that this recommendation would severely fail to achieve its most highly aimed motive- the conservation of forests- because plantations would only destroy the diversity of natural forests and create severe environmental impacts in the future.
The Way Ahead?
Thus, considering both, the expected gains and the estimated opportunity costs, instead of trying to examine them in isolation, it becomes important for us to look at the situation in a rather holistic manner. It cannot be disagreed that, both the immediate economic benefits, and the ultimate social and environmental losses hold equal importance for the country’s wellbeing. If looked at from a wider perspective, one entity that forms the central piece of this jigsaw puzzle, is certainly the ‘people’. Interestingly, these ‘people’ need to be delivered the expected economic benefits, as well as, be protected from the social and environmental losses. A greater participation of these ‘people’, in the real sense, through decentralisation of decision making capacity could be the only possible solution to these outstanding complexities. Ultimately, only a fruitful involvement of all stakeholders would lead to ensuring the well-being of these ‘people’. And it is not quite unknown, that the wellbeing of these ‘people’ rests with the wellbeing of their forests that they live by.
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