Guest post by Sakshi Aravind
In my previous post I had briefly discussed the shortcomings of the Compensatory Afforestation Bill, 2016 that has been recently passed by the Rajya Sabha. In this post, I continue to look at the problematic rationale behind conservation policies, which is reflected in the bill as well.
Deep rooted colonial notions of conservation and environmental protection
The construction of environmental conservation models and practices in India are deeply rooted in our colonial past. Indigenous communities and the local tribals have been perpetual outsiders, although they have had the greatest and the most legitimate stake in the immediate environment sought to be conserved. Western model of environmental conservation has always, mostly unscientifically, distanced the people from the ecological terrain brought under conservation. Therefore, until the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, the local communities did not have any legally recognised rights over the forest lands inhabited for generations or the forest produces on which their livelihoods was heavily dependant.
Several studies have suggested that the most successful efforts in conservation and ecological restoration have been undertaken where local communities have been given greater agency. This has been possible even with less resources and minimal government intervention. On the contrary, the top down approach in afforestation and conservation in the last two decades have yielded unsatisfactory results. Environment Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessments in environmental policies are very recent ideas. Nevertheless, these have not made way into substantive laws and institutional frameworks. The policies are still blind to adaptive ecological management and oversight. There appears to be greater faith in bureaucratic oversight while evidence suggests that the greater efficiency in supervision is enabled only when the task is left to stakeholder communities.
Invasive practices of conservation
While the compensatory afforestation bill itself is adding to the list of existing problems in environmental conservation, it is also providing us with an invaluable opportunity to revisit our understanding of restoring biodiversity and ecological balance. The rigid insistence on mindlessly following the colonial models has not only excluded local communities but has also wasted a treasure of traditional knowledge, which is more useful in effective conservation practices. Key concepts, like afforestation, are reduced to into unscientifically populating the ecologically sensitive regions with alien species and mono-crops that are hostile and counter productive. Evidence suggests that the indigenous population has been a repository of knowledge of best practices – of, conservation and increasing of bio-diversity in economically feasible manner. Restoration and conservation practices undertaken in some parts of Karnataka, Orissa and Kerala stand testimony to this proposition.
Unconvincing ideas of loss and compensation
Further, it is impractical to deal with forests as mere piece of land or territory that belongs to the state exclusively. Hence, notions of loss and compensation must originate from the consequences borne by the tribal communities that are being directly and disproportionately affected by both erosion of forest cover and loss of moral rights over forest land. Should the bill be necessarily retained, then the focus should shift towards correcting the exclusion of people from conservation models and diverting the resources towards empowering the local communities. It has been observed that the bill is not the only one to be blamed. The rot runs deeper with even the proposed Draft National Forest Policy, 2016 widening the gulf between tribals and the ecosystems sought to be conserved. Alongside, the fairly progressive Forest Rights Act has been suffering from flawed implementation. Some of the recent reports have indicated that the claims under Forest Rights Act have been rejected on flimsiest of grounds. The compensatory afforestation bill is feared to further aggravate the situation by denying rights to the tribals and forcefully taking away land meant for the use of traditional forest dwellers under the pretext of afforestation.
Creation of more funds, institutions, and authorities have never been a solution for resolving ecological problems. Historically, governments have been hesitant or actively opposed to the idea of collective ownership of forest lands. It is imperative that the state needs to recognise the rights of tribal communities which are battling marginalisation and alienation. They are as endangered, and in the thick of several crises, as any other species. The fund envisaged under the Act is massive and lacks rationale for its existence. There are several areas in conservation, like strengthening of vulnerable ecological areas, avoiding fragmentation of forest lands, relocation and reintegration of tribal communities without depriving them of the traditional rights, that demand channeling of the resources. It would be a great idea to allow for a complete restructuring of the bill and create a mechanism that would bolster Forest Rights Act and not counteract it. The need of the hour is to adopt coherence and consistency in scattered environmental laws and policies, and also reduce the 'developmental strategies' that allow for reckless mining permits and projects that are inherently damaging to fragile ecosystems. We sincerely hope that the promised rectifications to the bill sees the light of the day and that the bill's inconsistencies with other laws are positively addressed.