The National Mission for a Green India with a planned investment of $10.3 billion over the next 10 years can have a major developmental impact in more ways than one. Such a massive exercise can raise fresh natural capital that is so vital for the tens of millions of people who depend on degraded forests. It can meet the twin objectives of assigning forest land to tribal and other forest-dwelling communities to enable livelihoods, and relieving extractive pressures on core dense forests to aid conservation of wildlife and biodiversity. The overarching benefit to the environment will be in the form of carbon sequestration to combat climate change. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, which has grasped the imperative to balance these concerns, aims to add an impressive five million hectares of forest cover, and also improve the quality of forests over a similar area. The experience gained from the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programmes of the past will be invaluable. The JFM measures did not live up to their promise in most States and, in some cases, existed only on paper. In the main, they left forest communities feeling alienated. That nearly 40 per cent of open forest remains degraded today reinforces the need for a vastly improved management system.
A central role for local communities in forest restoration and expansion is envisaged under the new plan. This can help correct the historical imbalance in their role in managing the commons. It must be emphasised, however, that the whole exercise needs to be rooted in scientific practices. Several dedicated young scientists have been working in degraded areas of the Western Ghats to re-introduce endemic plants. These conservation groves, often sitting cheek-by-jowl with plantations and habitations, shelter a lot of endangered animals and birds. This shows that many more eroded ecosystems can harbour the biodiversity that is under pressure. The potential to expand horticulture in these sites, including disused mines, through fruit tree cultivation is worth exploring. Local communities can also be involved in the campaign to control invasive plant species that have been unthinkingly introduced into the environment. These plants suppress indigenous varieties and have overrun vast tracts of forests, reducing their productivity. Overall, the Green India plan, which is expected to provide a higher forest-based livelihood income to three million households, is significant for its attempt to give people a central role in restoring forest health. The legacy of mistrust between the Forest departments and tribal communities must give way to a joint management framework that is grounded in good conservation science.