‘We must shift to three-fold model of state, communities, and partnership between the two'

More than half of the nation's forests could be moved out of exclusive state control if Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has his way.

“We need a complete paradigm shift in the way we look at forest management. Our model is based on the primacy of the state, but we must shift to a three-fold model of state, communities, and partnership between the two,” Mr. Ramesh told TheHindu soon after accepting the report of the N.C. Saxena Committee on the Forest Rights Act (FRA) implementation.

“Out of the total 70 million hectares, I'd say about 35-40 million hectares could be shifted to exclusive community management or partnership between the Forest Department and communities,” he said, adding that these were “preliminary estimates.”

It is still not clear what such a move could mean for industrialists and developers seeking to use forest land. Already, many complain that the process of getting gram sabha approval before applying for forest clearance from the Central government, as stipulated by the FRA, is too onerous. If complete control is handed over to community managers in certain forest areas, it is unclear what changes would need to be made in the clearances and regulatory system.

The Saxena Committee's recommendations on future forest governance and the role of communities were split, with nine members signing the main recommendations and 10 others proposing alternatives, apart from two dissenters who warned against extending the FRA too far.

However, the committee's report was clear in criticising the State and Central governments for their apathy in implementing the FRA, which provides for individual and community forest land rights being awarded to tribals and other traditional forest-dwellers. It noted that land rights claims have faced large-scale rejections, and often the decisions of gram sabhas have not been respected.

In another step to stop harassment of tribals by forest officials, especially in Naxal-affected areas, the government plans to amend the Indian Forest Act in the next session of Parliament.

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