Compensatory Afforestation Bill – A Spectre of Old Problems: Part II

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. 
Conclusion
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. 
The
author is Research Fellow,
Vidhi
Centre for Legal Policy
, New Delhi. Part I can be accessed here.

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