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India’s Forest Policy Needs Revaluation

Context:

The extensive forested regions that span India’s varied landscapes are far more than just geographic features. They serve as the often-overlooked protectors of our planet, undertaking a significant task in preserving essential ecological services and combating the challenges posed by climate change. Any form of economic development that comes at the expense of these forests will inevitably harm marginalized communities that rely on them.

Utility of forests:

  • Forests are widely recognized as crucial safeguards against extreme weather patterns, ensuring a steady water supply, preventing soil erosion, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices.
  • The loss of these forests could lead to a significant decline in biodiversity, disrupting complex ecosystems and jeopardizing numerous forms of life, including humans.
  • Forests have been a primary source of sustenance for humanity, offering a diverse range of foods obtained through various ingenious methods.
  • Each domesticated species traces its origins back to the forest, where the gene pool exists in its purest form.
  • The reduction in wild food resources due to human activities and the fading knowledge of their harvesting and processing have resulted in a narrowing of the variety within the human food system.
  • While many disadvantaged households rely on monotonous staple diets provided by government initiatives, the tradition of and dependence on wild foods and indigenous medicinal systems persist, particularly in remote and economically challenged regions.
  • The indiscriminate conversion of forests into low-productivity agricultural lands through encroachments and government regularization for short-term gains must be halted immediately.
    For most people, forests are primarily vast expanses populated by trees and wildlife.

Drawbacks of legislations concerned with forests:

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) presents a more nuanced perspective, considering any territory spanning over a hectare with canopy coverage exceeding 10% as part of the forest cover. According to their latest biennial report, India’s forest cover encompasses approximately 22% of its land area. Nevertheless, questions arise regarding this definition and its genuine contribution to India’s ecological security.

  • The significance of vast, unbroken forests surpasses the mere sum of smaller, fragmented forest areas, even if these smaller areas have equivalent measurements, often created under the provisions of India’s Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
  • Alarming data from Global Forest Watch illustrates this trend: between 2002 and 2020, India witnessed a loss of approximately 3,490 square kilometers of natural forests.
  • Recently, the Forest Conservation Bill of 2023 has eased conditions for diverting forests for non-forestry purposes in many regions of the country.
  • The penal provisions of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 have been modified through a separate act called The Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Act of 2023, which reduces penalties for offenses related to activities like setting fire, cattle trespass, and grazing in forest areas.
  • Similarly, the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Act of 2023 has ‘decriminalized’ offenses, allowing offenders to escape with a mere fine.
  • In an effort to promote bamboo plantations in private areas, the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was amended in 2018, removing bamboo from the definition of timber, thereby making bamboo felling a ‘non-offense’ under this Act in Reserved Forests.
  • Current economic approaches often fail to acknowledge forest contributions that cannot be strictly translated into market terms. The economic connections related to forest products, including medicinal plants, as well as the provision of livelihoods to forest inhabitants and local communities, are either disregarded or not quantified.
  • The crucial role of forests in maintaining water balance in catchment areas and ensuring continuous streamflow is largely overlooked. Carbon sequestration and its role in climate change mitigation are also inadequately considered.

Conclusion:

As we continue to move forward in the era of sustainability across all domains, it becomes crucial to reassess, acknowledge, and integrate the genuine value of our forests into the national economy. At the same time, we must ensure that they continue to serve as our protective guardians for the well-being of future generations. The incorporation of wild edible plants into mainstream diets should be explored, as it holds the potential for significant implications for environmental sustainability, especially in a world grappling with food scarcity challenges. Given these considerations, the imperative to conserve forests at any cost cannot be overstated.


April 2024
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