Community participation in Forest Management

The participation of people is highly required for effective resource management in any country. Community can play very vital role in resource management. It is an integral part of the sustainable resource management. The strict legal framework for conservation of the resources would be insufficient without the community’s involvement in its effective implementation. The history of forest conservation in India is the best example of community’s participation in resource conservation. In India, forest dwelling tribal communities, villagers used to protect the forest as their survival was dependent on it. The true symbiotic relationship existed between those communities and the forests. During the British Raj in India, slow and gradual change was introduced in forest governance which affected this symbiotic relationship. During this period, the state intervention started in forest governance and it led to exclusion of the local communities up to some extent. The State extended its control over the forest resources in the name of conservation of the resources. The forest resources were protected by the state for the utilisation of these resources by the state at the exclusion of the rights of local communities. The Indian Forest Act of 1865 was the first legal framework which systematically introduced State’s control over the forests in India. It was amended in 1878. Finally the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was passed repealing the earlier acts. This law related to forest, categorised forests into Reserved forest, Protected Forest and Village forest. The provision of village forests permitted access to this forests by the communities for their needs. Earlier, before these laws, the communities used to own and maintain forests. The Van panchayats were very famous local bodies protecting forest in north east. With each law the State’s control over the forest resources got strengthened.

In post independent India, the remarkable change in this regard is not visible. The Act of 1927 is still applicable. The Forest was kept under the State list in the Constitution of India so majority of the states have their own laws on it. Then it was transferred to Concurrent list. In 1980, the Government of India passed the Forest Conservation Act which aims at conservation of the forest. The Forest Conservation Act provides that the conversion of forest land for non-forest purpose can only be done with the prior approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. It introduced two stage process for obtaining forest clearance, i.e approval for the conversion of forest land for non-forest purpose.

The strict interpretation of these provisions and wide interpretation of the definition of forest by the Supreme Court of India has opened a new chapter in the Forest Governance in India. In 1995 a writ petition filed before the Supreme Court of India by Mr. Tirumulpad Godavarman for illegal felling of trees in Nilgiri hills in south India. This case opened a new chapter in the history of forest governance in India. The first order in this matter was issued by the Apex court in 1996. Through the various orders in this case, the Apex court started managing the Indian forests. The repeated reminders of the Supreme Court to remove encroachments from forest in various orders in this case has led to eviction of the forest dwelling communities from the forest. It has led to conflict between the government and the communities which required the government to pass ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA)’. The Act was intended to address the historic injustice done to the forest dwelling communities. The gram Sabha is a body consists of members of forest dwelling communities and is created to decide the claims of the forest dwellers and their rights as forest dwellers. The Forest Right Act of 2006 has made proper arrangement of protecting the rights of the forest dwellers but the procedure to decide their rights as forest dwellers is bit clumsy. The problem is the Gram Sabha needs proper orientation about its role and responsibilities. On February13, 2019 Supreme Court passed the order directing the states for eviction of the people who could not prove their rights as forest dwellers which may affect around 11 lakh people. For a time being the order has been kept on hold by the court on 28th February 2019. It indicates that the State Government and the tribal ministries have to be vigilant and to take care that the Gram Sabha should be properly oriented about the procedure to decide their claim. These community can play best role in compensatory afforestation or protection of forest if they are involved in the process. Their inclusion in forest management is required for effective conservation of the forest resources of the nation. The Forest Policy of 1988 tries to involve the tribal forest communities by way of joint forest management programme and it remained successful where its implementation was proper. We have the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act of 2016 which deals with the management of the fund collected from the project proponents or user agency as compensatory afforestation fund by the government in lieu of the diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose. At present huge funds are available with the government and its utilisation for compensatory afforestation is yet to be done completely. There is a scope of involving this forest dwelling communities in compensatory afforestation programme. Only the community’s participation can bring the best result for the effective conservation and preservation of the resources. We need to strengthen the democratic forest governance in India.

Author Dr. Madhuri Parikh

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