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Management of Forests

As in most other parts of India, the forest department and communities living in and around forests in Bundelkhand are in an adversarial position.

The British colonial notion, carried forward after Independence, that forests are owned by the government, flies in the face of tradition and is seen by forest-dependant communities only as a means of harassing them. On the other hand, it is also true that forests are 'national wealth' and should be protected from damage caused by human beings and their cattle.

A mean has to be found between long-term environmental needs, national need for timber and other forest produce and the immediate needs of forest-dependant communities, in terms of fuelwood, fodder and income from collection of minor forest produce. At the level of policy, several efforts have been made to find this mean, but in practice, these have not resulted in due benefits to forest-dependant communities.

Development analyst N C Saxena, who has done considerable work on this issue, has identified the several problems that need to be tackled [Saxena, pp 287-309 ]. Firstly, people living in and around forests, especially women are not often aware about what they can collect freely from forests. The collection is done under fear of low-level forest officials who demand bribes in various forms (money, chicken, liquor, sex). Government control over sale of the forest produce collected by forest-dwellers is beset with delays in payments to gatherers; this has encouraged entry of contractors through the back door.

Though volumes of collection of minor forest produce have generally declined after government control over sale was introduced, government revenues from this source has increased substantially due to higher price realisation. However, payments to collectors have not risen proportionately.

The forest department generates considerable wage employment. Members of forest-dependant households, especially women, are employed for working in nurseries, and other operations. However, women often get lower wages than men for similar work and are not paid regularly. The wage employees get no benefit of labour laws, safety or health measures though the work is often done in difficult weather conditions and terrains.

The ultimate solution to these problems is transfer of management of forests to panchayats or people's organisations. But this is a distant if not unrealistic goal. In the absence of extensive, truly representative people's institutions at the village level, other arrangements will have to be devised and tried out. As Saxena pointed out, there are at least three models to work on.

Under the first model, called social security schemes, poor households raise and protect trees on government land with full wages, and get a share in the final produce too. In the second model, which has been attempted in West Bengal, the responsibility for protection is handed over to a village society on payment of royalty; the society arranges for collection and distribution of grass from the protected area to individual members. The third model is a BAIF project in Vansda taluka, Gujarat; here total control over forest lands was given to people and the NGO.  An arrangement that works in one place may not be suitable in another, Saxena cautioned.

In any case, the forest department's traditional mindset has to change. The current thinking is that timber is the main product of forests and all other produce, required by local people, is secondary. Saxena argued for a complete reversal of this approach: grasses, leaves, twigs, wild fruits, nuts and other minor forest produce should be treated as the 'the main intended products' from forest lands and timber from large trees like tamarind, jack fruit and sal should be treated as a 'by-product'.

Social forestry projects should be extended to reserved and protected forest lands by changing the nature of species from teak, eucalyptus and pines to trees such as neem, mahua, tendu, sal, arjun, and tamarind, supplemented with shrubs and bushes.

In this way, needs of local populations would be met and forest cover would also increase substantially, as people living in and around forests would have a direct stake in the new vegetation.

While this appears to be the most sensible way of enriching Bundelkhand's heavily degraded forest cover (see Forest Cover in Bundelkhand) , it runs against conventional government thinking. The suggested changes are in complete opposition to recommendations of the National Commission on Agriculture, 1976, which favoured commercial plantations on forest land and trees for consumption and subsistence on private land.

The suggestions are also not in tune with the new Forest Policy of 1988, and the Forest Conservation Act amended in the same year, which bans assignment or lease of forest land to people and prohibits plantation of horticulture crops, palms, oil-bearing and medicinal plants on forest lands without permission of the Government of India.

Reference:

  • Saxena NC, ' Women and Wasteland Development in India: Policy Issues' in Singh Andrea M and Burra Neera Burra (eds.), Women and Wasteland Development in India, Sage Publications, New Delhi: 1993

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