A framework for reforming India’s forest biodiversity management - I
by S Faizi & M Ravichandran on 09 Oct 2016 0 Comment

India’s forest biodiversity management regime is analysed at the policy, legal and institutional levels, from the perspective of the triple objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the principles of the Indian constitution. The forest bio-diversity management regime has both structural and functional flaws that render it largely incapable of facing the challenge of increasing biodiversity degradation and deepening poverty among the Adivasis and other forest-dependent communities. The paper argues for the reform of the forest biodiversity management regime and offers recommendations in regard to most aspects of the regime, with a view of putting the country’s conservation enterprise on a course that is effective, sustainable and inclusive, rejecting the report of the High Power Committee (HPC) (also known as the Subramanian Committee), which is premised on easing corporate access to forests.





India has a fairly robust forest biodiversity management system, with extensive institutional arrangements and vast legal instruments; however, there has been a decline in bio-diversity on one hand, and an increase in impoverishment of biodiversity-dependent people on the other hand. India’s biodiversity includes 96,373 known species of fauna and 56,515 known species of flora (including fungi and lichens), and comprises about 8% of the world’s biodiversity, but demonstrates a declining trend in numbers, with a significant proportion of species becoming threatened (MoEF, CC, 2014). Corresponding to biodiversity degradation is the deepening impoverishment of forest-dependent local communities, particularly the Adivasis (Planning Commission of India, 2008), thus alienating natural partners in conservation.


This twin crisis can be addressed only through reform of the country’s forest biodiversity management regime, based on the triple objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), namely, conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing, and drawing from the ecosystem approach as defined by Decision V/6 of the fifth meeting of the CBD’s Conference of Parties, held in 2000, as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. Thus, the application of the ecosystem approach will help in reaching a balance of the three objectives of the Convention: conservation, sustainable use, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources”. The reform should be founded on the Indian constitutional provisions of Article 39.b, which direct that the ownership and control of natural resources should be distributed in such a way that it serves the public good, and 48.A, which emphasizes the state’s responsibility to safeguard forests and wildlife.


The recommendations of the High Power Committee (HPC) (also known as the Subramanian Committee), constituted by the Government of India with the objective “to provide more freedom to private sector to function” (HPC, 2014), can only exacerbate the current twin crisis of biodiversity degradation and deepening poverty within the forest-dependent communities, as pointed out by critiques of the HPC report (e.g., Saldanha and Rao, 2015). The report ought to be rejected as recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests (2015). At the same time, there is a compelling need to reform the forest biodiversity management regime to effectively address the twin crisis of biodiversity degradation and deepening poverty of the forest-dependent communities. Therefore, we propose a framework for the reforms to be undertaken, in an effort to arrest and reverse the twin crisis, based on the CBD’s principles and constitutional directives.


India’s modem biodiversity management is evolving, albeit hesitantly, from its conventional protectionist and exclusionary domain to encompass the triple objectives of the CBD with equal importance to all, a process catalyzed by the Forest Rights Act (FRA). While forest departments continue to maintain their central roles in biodiversity management, the Panchayati Raj institutions have come to play a rapidly growing role, supported by enabling legislation. There is a gradual departure from the colonial legacy, expanding the scope of building partnerships with local communities through village-level institutions, such as the Joint Forest Management Committees and statutory bodies, which include the Forest Rights Committee under the FRA and the Biodiversity Management Committees under the Biological Diversity Act.


However, the inherent resistance within the forest departments to share power with the communities remains a challenge to the effective enforcement of these provisions. Multiple legislation pertaining to forests and biodiversity also retains the colonial legacy of exclusionary conservation. Constraints in the legislation and resistance within forest management institutions are factors impeding the tentative evolutionary process of devolving forest management powers to the people. Therefore, the reform of the forest management regime is necessary and urgent. This paper examines the current policy, legal and institutional matrix, and proposes ways to implement reform in line with the founding principles of CBD.


Reforming the policy realm

National forest policy


Since its inception in 1988, the revised National Forest Policy has guided forest management in the country. The principles of local community participation and benefit sharing embodied in the policy have also provided the stimulus for the launch of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme. However, rapid developments that have occurred in the forestry sector since 1988 require a subsequent revision of the policy, particularly since forest managers at various levels give more weight to the prescriptions contained in the policy than to any other related policy instrument.


While the policy has stimulated the launch of JFM, it did not envisage JFM as it is. Additionally, changes in the legal ambience of forest management caused by the FRA 2006 should be reflected in the policy. This will also provide an opportunity for the policy to be informed by the CBD, its program of work on forests and the overarching principle of the ecosystem approach. However, in the new Draft Forest Policy of 2016 (IIFM, 2016), the government invited public comments, but then withdrew the same policy with the same haste as it was drafted. This represents what a forward looking, inclusive and CBD-compliant forest policy should not be.


Joint forest management guidelines


Joint forest management (JFM) is practiced in the country according to a circular letter issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF, recently renamed Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change or MoEF & CC) in 1990, which was subsequently revised in 2000 and 2002. Since then, the JFM programme has grown to include over a quarter of the forest area across the country.


While the country is set to further expand coverage of JFM, it is imperative to revise this guiding instrument in order to incorporate the changes in forest governance that have occurred in tandem with the JFM stream. The MoEF had recommended to state governments - through the MoEF’s minister’s letter to the chief ministers, dated 29 October 2010 - to bring JFM under the supervision of the Gram Sabha (village assembly), and the JFMC to be recognized as an organ of the Gram Sabha under the relevant law concerning Panchayati Raj (local self-government) institutions. These recommendations are critical to effectively taking forward JFM, but they also need to be reflected in the national-level guidelines on JFM, in order to have an operational meaning. The revision will have an important bearing on the future trajectory of JFM.


National Biodiversity Action Plan


The National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP) of 2008 provides an excellent profile of the country’s biodiversity, but the actions delineated are insufficient in addressing the multiple problems facing biodiversity management, such as the increasing loss of species, depletion of dense forest and gearing up the institutional system to face new challenges, especially since it does not provide the required implementation pathways. The Addendum to the NBAP was developed in 2014 in lieu of a second generation NBAP, basically as a requirement to be submitted to the CBD, and perpetuates this deficiency.


A new generation of NBAP that provides a blueprint for the mainstreaming of biodiversity in multiple sectors, which takes greater advantage of the potential of the statutorily empowered local-level institutions, should be developed, with an emphasis on feasible actions. Various levels of the new NBAP should more evenly address the triple objectives of the CBD, and incorporate the ecosystem approach. The new strategy-making should adequately focus on the implementation mechanism and set measureable targets, and also should incorporate the biodiversity-poverty reduction linkage as a cross-cutting concern.           


Biodiversity management cannot be limited to legally protected areas, but should cover the contiguous landscapes as well, in order for management efforts to be successful. The landscape-wide management of resources enables the effective application of the ecosystem approach and the influence of land-use patterns beyond the formally protected areas. This also provides an opportunity for the often fragmented management agencies to work together

towards a common goal in a given landscape and seek synergies, as will be discussed later.


Converging the multiple laws


The multiplicity of biodiversity-related laws in India creates a complex management situation, not least due to inconsistencies and conflicting provisions across different laws. The Indian Forest Act is a legacy of the colonial regime, while the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) has in it provisions that impede the emerging paradigm of devolution and community participation in biodiversity management. The Biological Diversity Act has the limited operational mandate of regulating access to biodiversity, failing to translate the triple objectives of the CBD and the principles of the ecosystem approach into domestic law. As an example of how the conventional conservation laws constrain the concerns of the community, we provide an analysis of such provisions in the WLPA in Table 1. The FRA has marked a paradigm shift from the exclusionary notion of conservation to recognising community rights over forests, and empowering local communities to protect and manage forest biodiversity.


Table 1. WLPA provisions inconsistent with the CBD and ecosystem approach




Impact on Adivasis and other traditional communities


18B and 19 / district collector to determine the rights claimed by people affected by the proposed sanctuary or national park, but no criteria provided to determine and settle claims

The collector’s decision can be arbitrary, and traditional forest dwellers can lose their rights. They often do not have a modern proof of rights


34A / gives powers to the government to evict encroachers

Most forest dwellers are affected by this as their rights were not recognised in the first place, and thus could be categorized as encroachers


35.3 and 4B / extinguishes all rights in National Parks (NPs)

No rights are permitted in NPs; the continuation of rights legally permitted

in a sanctuary (24.c) is undone, as is grazing permitted under section 33


18A.1 / the declaration of intention by the state government to recognize an area as a sanctuary (Section 18.1) is enough for the restrictive measures to take effect, rather than the final notification (Section 26A) after the settlement of claims

Even though claims are not settled in more than half of the sanctuaries, in order for the final notification to be issued, restrictive measures were applied in violation of the WLPA before the 2003 amendment, and the new amendment has legalised this violation of natural justice


It would be appropriate to create a single national legislation that covers multiple issues related to biodiversity management and community rights. Such a reform of the legal regime is also necessary to harmonize the national legislation with the CBD. A statutory convergence of the current forest departments, tribal welfare departments and Panchayat Raj institutions is also essential in creating a biodiversity governance system that would address both conservation and livelihood concerns, and convert communities to partners in conservation rather than render them victims. Policy reform followed by legal reform will ease biodiversity management, reconciling conservation needs and community interests, and create new institutional arrangements at various levels. The reform of the protected areas management system to make it participatory has been outlined by Faizi (2006). Forest reform should be entirely based on the objectives of conservation, sustainable use, and equitable benefit sharing and the ecosystem approach, grounded in the constitutional directions mentioned at the outset, grossly rejecting notions of reform in order to ease corporate access to forests, as the HPC has pursued.


(To be continued…)

S. Faizi is an ecologist specialising in biodiversity management; s.faizilll@gmail.com

M. Ravichandran is at the Department of Environmental Management, Bharathidasan University, Thiruchirappalli; muruguravi@yahoo.co.in

Courtesy Natural Resources Forum 40 © 2016 103-111 United Nations

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