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Why Are India’s Forest Policies Failing?

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Forest Laws, by definition, ‘govern activities in forestlands, with respect to management and timber harvesting.’

At least a dozen laws have been formulated in India, regulating wildlife, forest resources, and climate change, in the past 70 years. They all give separate powers to the state and national governments to take decisions aimed at increasing India’s forest cover to 33% of the total geographical area by 2020. And with almost 275 million people dependant on forests for their livelihood, it is vital that the country place special focus on preserving and developing forests.

But are the laws really fruitful? It is ironical to think that despite so much regulation, India’s forest cover is ever depleting. According to reports, in the past 95 years, India has lost about 40% of its green cover. Where does the flaw lie? Is it in our policy or its implementation?

Let’s take a look at how India fares on the forest management scale.

This Act was enacted during the British rule, in addition to the Forest Act of 1878. Both the 1878 and 1927 acts sought to reserve the areas having forest cover or significant wildlife. This was done to ensure proper use/trade of forest produce like timber, and regulate the taxes levied on them. The Act also categorised forest areas as – Reserved Forest, Village Forest or Protected Forest and laid down guidelines for tourist activities allowed in these areas.

This was one of the initial laws carved by the British government not just to protect forests, but also regulate trading activities of forest resources like wood, fruits, sap, etc. And while this Act successfully protected our forest for years, it’s the 2017 Lok Sabha Bill that made it flawed.

The amendment of the Indian Forests Act omitted the need for permissions for felling and trade of bamboo. This was done because bamboo cultivation in India is increasing and it gives farmers a supporting income when other crops fail. But in the long run, this amendment will be counter-productive for the environment. It will give easy access for felling trees and allow a bamboo mafia to thrive in limited regulation. How? We know for a fact that timber and weed mafias run heavy activity in restricted forests, as there aren’t many people around. In many instances, these mafias have deliberately started forest fires, to acquire resources that they wouldn’t have otherwise got access to. By doing so, they can easily cover up the excessive felling of trees and take help from bribed forest officials.

It doesn’t make sense giving easy passage to tree felling, especially in a country where corruption is high and that’s already seen the rise of mafias in deregulated industries.

Although the country had to wait three decades to get the new forest policy (previous in 1988), it sure looks promising, with a plan to pay particular attention to fresh challenges – decreasing green cover, human-animal conflict and increased climate changes.

The draft, though unapproved, proposed to reduce the activity of humans in existing forests and create new forests on arid lands using scientific experiments. This is how it plans to bring the forest cover to 33%. These ideas weren’t drawn in any previous plans, simply because the idea of technologically producing forests seemed too expensive and risky. But the government has now found a solution. And that’s where the problem occurs.

While it sounds like a solid plan, it received a lot of flak for three reasons. First, the idea was to allow private investments in forest technology. People were quick to point out that the move was a BJP quip to let the private sector enter forests. Before this, forests had been completely under the control of the state governments with absolutely no say to private parties. But now, the plan is to innovate. How do you increase forest cover in low fertility areas? Technology is needed and the affordability comes from privatisation.

Second, current forestlands have several other development activities going on like mining, agriculture, and construction. Although it’s right of the government to not part with forestland for such things, it needs to provide an alternative area. Agriculture for one is equally as important as forestry. And farming families that use this land for their livelihood need replacement, which the draft fails to offer.

Finally, the draft hasn’t given enough attention to the plight of tribal communities who were ousted from forest areas. These communities consider the forest as their home and live off hunting and forest produce. Their homes were previously torn apart to construct housing and facilities for urban populace. Ironic, isn’t it?

Although, the rights of these tribal have been addressed in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006 legally recognises the rights of certain communities who live in the forests and help take care of it. The Act not only gives rights to tribals to live in forest areas but also access to collect forest produce and regenerate resources.

But why did we need a special act to authorise their life in the forests in the first place? It’s because human activities brought immense losses to their livelihoods. Mining led to contamination of forest lakes and infertility of land, mafia activities led to forest fires, trees were felled to construct resorts, and tourist attraction sites were termed National Parks. The government approved grazing of large chunks of forest areas to build houses and highways for urbanisation.

Human thirst for development and profit ruined forests and lives of people living in it. This is why the government had to come up with a law that restored tribal lives by giving them rights to live in and look after the forests.

But despite such efforts, the Act has a minor impediment in its execution. It grants permission to village assemblies (Gram Sabha) to take the final call in matters affecting tribals. Instead of determining the tribal families in an area and giving them direct rights, village panchayats were entrusted with providing justice. This means they can decide as to how a case should be treated under the act, and of course, ulterior motives do play a part. Villagers don’t always follow the law. They may take away rights from a family due to personal grudges or prejudices. And at the end, there is no guarantee of justice for tribal communities.

With a whopping 250 projects and a new-fangled approach, the 3rd National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) has the potential for some path-breaking changes.

It takes a new ‘landscape’ approach as opposed to the prior ‘area’ approach that was confined only to the protected areas of the country. This means that the plan looks at the importance of wildlife protection in terms of the whole country as compared to just wildlife areas. Once you focus on the impact on the country, the purpose becomes clearer. Now it’s not just about saving wildlife, but about the ‘why’ factor of doing so.

It aims at tackling the human-animal conflict arising due to human development activity in wildlife zones.

But where are the results?

study published in Conservation India shows that 85% of the tourist resorts and hotels are located within 5 km of wildlife zones. They draw water and wood from the area — sometimes at the cost of the animals themselves, and dump garbage with no regard for the environment. There’s also free entry for civilians into wildlife zones with no ceiling on the number of people or vehicles allowed, or the permitted behaviours. Yet, the plan makes of mention of tackling these issues. In addition, it also proposes to focus on private sector participation in conservation of wildlife – something people have already established is counter-productive.

In conclusion, each of the policies can be merited for focussing on specific aspects of forests, but they leave lots of room for corruption and failure. What we really need is a consolidated plan that brings all aspects of forests under a single law. Is that possible? Can we really devise a one law fits all situation?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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