Ministry uses rhetoric of “community control” to hide the actuality of intensified state control

Campaign for Survival and Dignity

Much press attention in the last week has been devoted to the Environment Minister’s statements on “democratic forest management” and how the existing forest management system needs to change. Such statements are welcome, for they mark an official admission that India’s forest bureaucracy has impoverished millions and increasingly been an opponent of both forest conservation and forest dwellers.

But what the Ministry says does not at all match what the Ministry does. Not only is the Ministry not moving in the direction of democratic management; it is moving against democratic management, while using the rhetoric of “community control” to hide the actuality of intensified state control.

At a time when state control over forests and forest lands is a major weapon in the assault on people’s resources and livelihoods, this is not an arcane policy issue alone; it is one component in the ongoing intense struggle over deciding how we will use our natural resources and how we will define our society.

A simple comparison throws up what is actually going on (click on links to know more about each issue):

Issue What the Ministry Said What the Ministry is Doing
Diversion of forest land for corporate projects One and a half years after passage of FRA, Ministry finally issues Aug 2009 order that requires FRA compliance i.e. recognition of rights and consent of gram sabha before land can be handed over * As per public minutes of Forest Advisory Committee, there is not a single project in which the Ministry has complied with FRA or its own order. In Polavaram, the FRA has been brazenly and publicly violated. In only one project has compliance even been considered – POSCO – but even after non-compliance has been exposed by three different committees, and five years of protest by the people, the forest clearance is still standing.
* Meanwhile, there are ongoing attempts to get the order withdrawn.
Joint Forest Management Throughout this year, including this week, statements by Minister that Joint Forest Management has become a Forest Department proxy and needs “reform.” * The reality is that there is only one nation-wide law that provides for democratic community control over forests – the Forest Rights Act(PESA provides even more extensive powers in Scheduled Areas). This supersedes all existing schemes. Therefore, if the Ministry is genuinely interested, the first steps for democratic control would be to shut down JFM, put the funds into the NREGA or other systems which permit local institutions to decide their priorities, and direct forest authorities to comply with local powers as provided in the FRA. MoEF would then have to join other Ministries in a coordinated effort towards democratic resource management, which is not MoEF’s domain alone.
* What is happening is exactly the opposite. There is repeated talk of “revamping” Joint Forest Management (which has no legal validity), and this translates into giving JFM committees powers that actually belong to democratic institutions.
* Even the basic fact that forest guards sit as the secretaries of JFM Committees, and their funds are controlled through the Forest Department, is completely ignored.
In short, the Ministry is strengthening its proxies, not democratising them.
Forestry Projects The Ministry repeatedly claims that the huge amount of money being poured into forestry projects will benefit forest dwellers and be spent in a “decentralised” fashion under “people’s control.” The money put into forestry includes money from the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) (1,000 crores per year), the proposed Green India Mission (46,000 crores in total), Japanese-funded “external” forestry projects, the National Afforestation Programme and the developing international REDD agreement. In every single one of these programs, funds are being channeled or are proposed to be channeled through JFM and the Forest Department, directly undermining democratic control and driving land grabbing. This is true in the case of CAMPA – despite a direct indictment by a Parliamentary Standing Committee. For details of other programmes see our statements on the proposed Green India Mission and the MoEF approach to REDD. If the Ministry is interested in democracy, why is it channeling funds to the very institutions that undercut democratic control – and this after it has itself said that they do so?

The “forked tongue” approach that has come to characterise the forest bureaucracy and this Ministry is extremely dangerous. It blocks actual change by claiming to be engaging in it; and then it does precisely the opposite, cleverly garbed in the right terms and the right language. In the process, “participation” becomes a code word for devolving huge amounts of money to select individuals and sections of villages in order to create what are essentially state proxies and vested interests. Nor is this confined to the Environment Ministry; we now have a “Integrated Action Plan” for “developing” Maoist areas by putting thousands of crores into the hands of the very officials who have destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods, organised inhuman repression and violated all norms of democracy. In the long run, this approach is a formula for dividing communities, breaking resistance, undermining democracy and destroying resources. It may make sense for the interests of corporations and state machinery; but to the rest of us it is a formula for resource grabbing and destruction.

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