No wasteland in India, only wasted land: Jairam Ramesh

Sowmini G Prasad

Jairam Ramesh speaking on the New Draft National Forest Policy and the Deteriorating State of Environment in India in Bengaluru on 13th April, 2018.

Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)

Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) (independent charge), spoke on the new draft forest policy and the deteriorating state of environment in India in an interaction organised by the Environmental Support Group and Actionaid Association (Bangalore). The interaction, a question and answer session, covered a wide range of issues. However, this blog post focuses mostly on the discussions held around the new draft National Forest Policy, 2018 (NFP), the Forest Rights Act, 2006, (FRA) and the importance of institutions like the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and Parliamentary Standing Committees.

On the new draft NFP, Mr. Ramesh was of the view that while there are certain elements of continuity from previous policies, there are certain significant departures as well. The new draft NFP, uploaded by the MoEFCC for public comments in March 2018, has been criticised for its attempt to shift the approach to forestry in India – specifically, from a local community and ecology-centric approach emphasised in the 1988 policy – to one on timber and forest-based industries (The Wire 2018). While the requirement to maintain one-third forest cover in the country as per NFP, 1952 continued into the NFP, 1988, it has received additional focus in the new policy as forests have been recognised to act as huge carbon sinks. However, he did admit that the policy gives an idea of the government’s thinking on forests and environment, as the departure from the previous policies can viewed to be geared towards a business led GDP growth. The thrust on forestry in the new policy can be seen to be driven by two forces – one, to meet the COP21 commitment on increasing the carbon sink through a faster rate of increase in forest cover and two, with around 40 percent of India’s forest cover considered to be degraded, it opens up an opportunity for participation of private sector, satisfying its long standing demand to create captive plantations for wood-based industries. On the issue of grassland ecosystem not finding place in the current policy like the previous policies, he admitted that the progressive loss of grasslands is a great tragedy and attributed it to the spread of agriculture and irrigation. He also pointed to how for many years grasslands have been considered as wasteland and that in reality there no wastelands in India, but only wasted land. Addressing apprehensions on the potential of the policy to change or water-down existing legislations in the long term, by changing the definitions of forest areas which are protected under current legislations for example, he pointed to how the government cannot meddle with the definitions too much and that the forests were a state subject.

On FRA and its objectives, Mr. Ramesh spoke about how the legislation is an important instrument which can aid in redressing historical injustices meted out to the forest dwelling communities and how it can be used to deliver justice in the future as well. The objective of FRA is to recognise both individual and community forest rights. While around 14 lakh families have received individual rights, he mentioned how there has been a failure to recognise community forest rights. He pointed to the existence of a fear, especially in the forest department, that granting community forest rights might lead to a sudden empowerment of community-based institutions like the gram sabhas. He quoted the transfer of rights over revenue from such forest land from the forest department to the gram sabhas arising from a situation of recognition of community forest rights as an example of the source of such fears. However, he stressed on the importance of having gram sabhas as the pivotal point of community rights. He gave the examples of Jamaguda village in Orissa and Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra where community forest rights have been successfully recognized to emphasise that not all hope was lost. On the arguments that the FRA is in conflict with the need for maintaining sacrosanct spaces for wildlife, Mr. Ramesh highlighted the importance of the legislation and the need for a consultative process. He also added that any project in a forest area cannot be cleared unless the rights have been settled, pointing to the fact that on account of this requirement, many mining and coal projects had to go through a due diligence process. He emphasised that the key is to recognise due rights of the forest dwelling communities, make them partners in regeneration and conservation of forests, and where necessary, provide them with viable and attractive options to relocate.

The third issue that Mr. Ramesh stressed on was the role of institutions like the National Green Tribunal and the Parliamentary Standing Committees. On NGT, he spoke about the importance of ensuring its independence and maintaining its control outside the reach of the government. He spoke about this in the context of the provisions contained in Finance Bill, 2017 which sought to give the power to appoint NGT members to a government appointed nominee, while the NGT rules provide for such appointments to be made by a committee headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge (The Hindu 2017). He added that NGT is a people’s institution and that it has brought environment related grievance redressal closer to people through its dispute settlement mechanism. He also stressed the importance of having forums where elected representative come to the people to hear their voices. In this context, he spoke about how the standing committee of the environmental ministry can play a significant role through its powers to review policies and call for evidences, including the suo-motu power to call for a review.

Finally, on the difficulties that the environment ministry faces in carrying out its tasks, he spoke about the importance of balance in decisions relating to environmental conservation and how economic growth cannot be dismissed. While India has good policies and legislations, he pointed to weak and sometimes missing enforcement and the need for people holding political power to walk the talk on environmental decisions.

References

Agarwal, Sushant. 2018. National Forest Policy Draft 2018 Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The Wire. 02 April 2018 (https://thewire.in/environment/national-forest-policy-draft-2018-takes-one-step-forward-two-steps-back). 

Rajagopal, Krishnadas. 2017.Govt.’s response sought on Jairam’s plea over Finance Act. The Hindu. 04 August 2017 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/govts-response-sought-on-jairams-plea-over-finance-act/article19429207.ece). 

(Sowmini G Prasad is a 2017-19 participant of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. She can be reached at sowminigprasad@nls.ac.in)


Image source – http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/land-acquisition-act-will-help-tribals-and-farmers-jairam-ramesh/article5182406.ece

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